Many teens spend every minute of free time on their phones, playing video games, or lost in the screens of their laptops. In fact, according to Common Sense Media, teens now spend around nine hours a day in front of a screen—and that doesn’t include screen time they may log doing homework or at school.
“Increasingly, students just don’t know how to deal with boredom, loneliness, and unpleasant feelings,” says Doug Worthen, director of mindfulness programs at Middlesex School, an independent day and boarding school in Concord, Massachusetts. Many educators blame the long hours spent on screens for fractured attention levels, lack of impulse control, and heightened levels of depression and anxiety. Teens are also losing their ability to navigate nuanced and complex interpersonal human interactions, says Adam Ortman, head of mindfulness at St. Andrews School in Texas.
In response, mindfulness educators across the United States are creating specific curricula and practices around how to use technology with greater intention. Their approaches tend to focus on three fundamental mindfulness skills: watching thoughts, being present with others and the natural world, and self-compassion.
Impulses Are Impermanent
Worthen explains that by paying attention to their thoughts, students can begin to understand the intentions behind their phone use. Are they going to connect with someone or are they going to distract from a feeling? “We also want the students to see that these impulses are impermanent. They come and go. You don’t have to act on them,” he says.
When Worthen leads a tech mindfulness session, he begins by asking students to place their phones on the ground beside them and leads a body scan meditation. Then he asks students to pick up their phones and simply hold the device in their hands. He prompts them to keep their attention wide, notice their impulses to check notifications, and explore what sensations they find in their bodies. The students then turn on their phones and watch where their fingers get pulled. What apps have them hooked? What is their intention and what are they trying to get with each click?
Present Over Perfect
For Erica Marcus, the mindfulness director at Cape Elizabeth Middle School in Maine, classes focus on helping students understand why they feel pulled to their devices and the emotions that arise. Marcus recently wrote the book Attention Hijacked: Using Mindfulness to Reclaim Your Brain from Tech. One of her goals is for students to understand the power of big tech and how they can protect themselves from the harmful aspects of social media.
“We want students to see that they don’t need external validation,” she says. She helps her students approach technology grounded in their personal values, self-compassion, and empathy for others. “We recognize that social media is exacerbating judgmentalness, perfectionism, and a sense of not ‘enoughness.’ What can we do to protect ourselves against that, knowing that very smart people and computers are trying to create a particular experience for us so that we engage and buy. The compassion and forgiveness practices help plant seeds in the mind to buoy ourselves so that maybe we won’t be as pulled by the lures of technology.”
Marcus leads group discussions around social media in a larger societal context to help students talk about perfection, how technology firms profit from teens feeling badly about themselves, exploring how technology allows teens to live out their values, and how it doesn’t. Next, she leads students through compassion practices where they will repeat phrases about self-forgiveness and feeling “enough.” She often uses Eric Kolving’s forgiveness meditation which starts with “I allow myself to be imperfect, I allow myself to make mistakes.”
Getting Back to Nature
Ortman leads practices to nurture the layers of human intelligence that screen-based technology leaves out—the more subtle, embodied, receptive, and relational aspects of being. He helps students see the joy, magic, and beauty of life in the real world by having students do mindfulness practices in pairs and in nature.
As teens spend more of their day in a one-way exchange with technology, they are not practicing how to read non-verbal cues or how to be present physically with others. They are also not having the sensory experience of interacting with the natural world. “In Zoom-land or sitting next to someone and staring at a screen, you have a vague impression of what’s happening with them and this generation is learning to be satisfied with that,” says Ortman.
Ortman asks students to do mirroring activities by pairing up and copying the movements and facial expressions of their partner. By doing this, students become aware of their own bodies and the body of their partner. Mirroring helps students learn through imitation, build rapport, understand the meaning or intention of other’s actions, and anticipate what others might do.
Ortman also uses walks in nature as a way to show students all the sensory experience they are missing in the metaverse. “I want the students to connect with nature in whatever way is possible—even if only to feel the sun or wind, to observe a cloud or a single leaf,” he says.
In her role as Mindfulness Director at a US middle school, Erica Marcus is helping students and teachers honor the difficulties of learning in the era of COVID, while also savoring the joys.
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