DENVER — Inside McAuliffe-Manual Middle School, principal Douglas Clinkscales fights the same battles that so many other high school and middle school principals fight when it comes to students and their phones.
“This is my first year as principal, but I’ve served the high school since 2007,” Clinkscales said. “It is such a challenge. I think the first thing that comes to mind when we’re talking about students and their devices is how they’re consuming things. Whether it’s TikTok or the reels on Instagram, Facebook – it’s coming in 30 second to a minute chunks, right?”
For starters, he said teachers have had to makes some adaptations in the way they teach because kids just have shorter attention spans.
“What are we doing every couple of minutes to break it up because we know, just the attention span — because of the way our students are consuming things on social media — is so rapid fire. If you’re going to try to do something for 30 minutes in a class, you’re going to lose kids. So, it has to be super, super engaging.”
Another big problem for him and other administrators is the online bullying or harassment that is all too prevalent among adolescents today.
“And then the next day, I’m like – ‘Man, the kids are...—there’s a negative energy going on in the building. I’m not sure what’s going on.’ And then finally, at about 10-11 o’clock, we’ve unpacked that last night on social media — this was going on, that was going on, and this group of friends was going back and forth with this other group of friends and now they’re not friends anymore."
A brand-new study out this fall from Common Sense Media reveals teens are bombarded with an average of 237 notifications per day on their phones.
“They’re a distraction, right?” said Amanda Lenhart, head of research at Common Sense Media. “Because notifications represent things you want to look at. Teens are on their phones an average of five hours a day, so this is something that’s both with you all the time and you’re using it all the time.”
Lenhart was the lead researcher on the study called ‘Constant Companion,’ which reveals that time spent on devices — no surprise — is impacting your kids’ schoolwork, sleep routines, as well as overall stress levels. And it gets worse.
“Some of the data in the study do show that young people are accessing apps that are not rated for them,” Lenhart said. “In fact, the study revealed the majority of 11-,12-year-olds are accessing apps on platforms rated 13-and-up. We saw many kids in our study, none of whom are 18 and older, accessing mature content on apps that are rated 17-plus, whether that’s apps for pornography or apps for gambling or games that are rated for mature users.”
But accessing apps that aren't age appropriate isn't the biggest problem, according to the study.
“The research is in, and the more time kids spend online, specifically social media, the higher rates of depression they have,” said Brad Sjostrom, director of behavioral health at AdventHealth Porter Hospital.
Sjostrom said research shows rates of depression in adolescents doubled from 2011 to 2019.
“The biggest thing that has changed is the presence of social media,” he said. “It’s pretty convincing that social media, smart phones are a major contributor to depression, anxiety and a general unhappiness amongst teenagers. It’s leading to higher rates of suicide attempts and completed suicides.”
It’s particularly worrisome among girls, where one in four report being depressed versus one in 12 adolescent boys.
And Sjostrum said the common denominator is often apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat.
“The negative attribute is — they know where everyone is at any given time,” Sjostrum said. “So, if they see most of their friends are at a party and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, why aren’t I there? I wasn’t invited to that party,’ then there’s a sense of feeling left out. A lot of it is just not reality. There’s filters so they can look different than they actually are.”
But there is hope.
Sjostrum said he realizes it’s hard for some parents, but three key practices can dramatically improve adolescent mental health:
- Charging phones outside of the bedroom at night after 8 p.m.
- Limiting kids to 2.5 hours of screen time or less per day.
- Encouraging your children to be involved in at least one in-person activity.
“Structured activities such as sports, clubs, work,” Sjostrum said. “Just encourage kids to do activities in-person. It’s not restricting. It’s saying – ‘Go out and have fun.’”
And experts agree — structured family-time and communication is also a key contributor to the overall well-being of kids.
“Just be present to one another,” Sjostrum said. “Kids value that time even though sometimes they’d prefer to be out with their friends.”
“Acknowledging your own use of the platforms, asking your children to explain to you what they like about it,” Lenhart said. “Talking with them about the challenges they’re facing.”
Back at Mcauliffe-Manual, Clinkscales and his team have added enrichment activities and leadership classes in an effort to get kids off their devices and into an environment where everyone feels safe and valued.
“I think we’ve built a community of trust,” said Clinkscales. “It’s really about self-talk, self-belief. Having belief in yourself, confidence in yourself.”