Your Career May Depend on You Quitting Social Media

That title is a paraphrase of a byline from an article on the New York Times website. It also appeared in print in the Business Section on page 8 on November 20, 2016. Cal Newport, the author of the article, claims that by continually monitoring your social media sites, you reduce your ability to achieve success in your working life. “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated,” he says. “The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about.” In other words, it requires an ability to put distractions aside and work. The ability to put aside distractions in order to focus on a specific task is becoming a hot commodity in the professional workplace. Social media can diminish that ability because it is by its very nature addictive. Your brain craves that instant hit of recognition, to the detriment of deep, unencumbered thinking.

“The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you’re serious about creating things that matter,” says Newport. He purposefully does not have any social media accounts–he’s a computer scientist who writes books and also runs a blog. His conscious decision to remove himself from the world of social media in order to focus more completely on his work is counter to what many think of as a way to find opportunities they might otherwise not discover, and to cultivate contacts that will help with future job promotion.

I’ve seen the diminishment of the ability to concentrate and focus firsthand among my high school students. They can’t go more than a few minutes without checking in with the monster in their hand. The idea that “smartphones” (quotations mine) are here to stay and we have to work with them in education is a double-edged sword. We got along fine without them 10-15 years ago. And I’m not saying that there’s any way to go back–the addiction to these attention-sucking monsters affects more than 80 percent of young adults who say they “couldn’t live without” their electronic device.

At some point, of course, I hope the pendulum will swing back, and that people will find a way to cure their addiction and re-engage with each other and with their work. Employers are looking for people who can collaborate with one another to solve problems, and it doesn’t mean via Skype or Snapchat. Face to face communication will remain a dynamic part of working life, as will being able to work independently and deeply on projects. Hopefully (I seem to use that work a lot), people will be able to set aside their instant connection devices and live up to their employer’s expectations. I shudder to think what will  happen if they do not.

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How well does Pre-K prepare children?

I’ve ranted about this before. Maybe, with enough evidence from studies like this, we can go back to kindergarten being what it’s supposed to be: a place for children to learn to interact with others, develop social skills, and just be kids. In other words, let them play. Why throw money into a program that isn’t showing clear positive results? The Finnish study I referenced before says “play is a very efficient way of learning for children…and we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”

Learning with joy. I’ve seen what curriculum is like for pre-K and kindergarten, and in my mind it’s too focused on achievement. Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education, says “those things you learn without joy you forget easily.” Joy. What a simple word, and what a lot to convey in a simple word. We need to bring back joy into our youngest students’ lives, allowing them time to be what they are, children who eagerly look forward to coming together with their classmates for play.

Learning can take place organically, as each child shows interest and becomes ready. It doesn’t have to be pushed to meet some arbitrary state standard of learning. “There’s no solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it,” says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So if there are no advantages to teaching kids to read in kindergarten, why push for more funds to teach it to pre-K?

Hopefully the pendulum will start to swing back to a happy medium in this country sooner rather than later. I hope that US education lawmakers will take a stronger look at the early education programs in Finland that lead to such amazing results later in high school, where the Finns have been outperforming the US on something called the Program for International Student Assessment. And Finland wasn’t always seen as such a powerhouse–it’s only been within the last 40 years that Finnish education policies have allowed it to surpass most other countries in assessment of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading.

I want US education policies to reflect a more humanitarian aspect of learning, placing less emphasis on standardized testing and more on the child as a whole person. I remember the stress and pressure my kids were under in kindergarten. Spelling tests. Reading instruction. At the time I just did the best I could to encourage them and help them along. I want this to change for future generations. I want to bring joy back into the classroom, not only at the primary but at the secondary level. Joy. Is it such a difficult concept?

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Infographic on excess Internet use

Yep, there’s more on the “Internet changes your brain structure” issue. Check out the infographic on this blog–the author has looked into multiple studies that document that excessive Internet use affects the way the brain develops, and not always in a positive way. He linked to a few studies, like this one from Scientific American, that are investigating how continuous Internet use physically changes the brain. The conclusions reached are still inconclusive, though, and the debate still rages over whether constant Internet availability and the subsequent brain changes have net negative consequences.

There’s no doubt that we live in a more inter-connected age, and that information is flowing faster than ever. It’s been said, “getting information from the Internet is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.” (Finding the original quote was interesting–the above link to the quote is the earliest I could find, from 2000.)  It may be inevitable that our brains will indeed wire themselves differently as it’s impossible to go back to a time without all that connectivity. I’m hoping for an ultimate “moderation in all things” type of response. I want the pendulum to swing back a bit and people to put down their electronic devices in order to more fully interact with one another in person. (The media could do its part by creating advertisements advocating a break from electronic data, but yeah, that’s not going to happen.)

Part of me wants to shake the collective world’s shoulders and entreat them to disconnect, just for a little while, once in a while. Part of me recognizes the futility of that dream. But I’ll continue to be a one-woman advocate for unplugging from time to time, if only to make sure that your significant other hasn’t been replaced by a robot. :o)

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AP classes don’t really help students excel in college

I’ve just read an article from Brookings that states that Advanced Placement classes aren’t all that effective at preparing students for college, or at predicting college completion rates. This makes me curious and a little concerned; I’ve long thought that taking an AP class would allow one to gain precious credit for a college course. Turns out, not so much apparently. Dartmouth College stopped taking perfect AP scores of 5 in Psychology in 2013, concerned that AP classes weren’t as rigorous as college classes. And researchers found at the University of Sydney that “students with no background in senior high school physics are generally not disadvantaged.” Concerned that the studies consulted didn’t cover a wide-enough area, Brookings consulted thousands of transcripts from the Department of Education’s National Educational Longitudinal Study and found evidence that confirmed the theory that advanced classes in high school do not prepare students for college-level work.

The study postulates that it isn’t so much that students aren’t learning as it is they are not learning the right things, aren’t focusing on critical thinking, or have forgotten what they’ve learned. And most colleges are making students take an introductory course on writing and argument anyway, as even students from top schools aren’t performing at levels required for post-secondary education.

What to do? The study isn’t suggesting rejecting AP classes out of hand, even though AP class curriculum is limiting, with little creativity allowed for teachers. The authors suggest technical education and “non-cognitive skill development” as better strategies to encourage college completion, rather than the repetitive drilling on subject content so prevalent in AP classes, and enriching classes with creativity and life skills.

This article made me think. I had a “college prep” high school career, even though I only took two years of math. (It was the ’70’s.) I had a rich elective set. I thought I was ready for college level coursework. Erm, no. I took English 101 my first semester in college, which graphically illustrated to me my inability to write a coherent research paper.  Turns out that one college English class was probably the most valuable of my scholastic career, and I’m most grateful to that teacher whose name I’ve long since forgotten.

I would love to see richer content and deeper delving into subjects by teachers constrained by “teaching to the test.” Bring back shop and home ec and woodworking. Free up some time to continue discussions sparked by students, rather than having to immediately go on to the next segment dictated by a test. Let students really learn, and by doing so, increase the likelihood of completing college. Encourage creativity and problem-solving, not how to take a multiple choice exam.

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Sleep or the lack thereof

So, yeah, sleep. We’re not getting enough of it, either as adults or as adolescents. I listened to a story on NPR this morning about how lack of sleep is making employees cranky and less productive, making them perform at the level of mild intoxication. I’ve already championed the cause of taking naps, and the NPR story suggested that employers who provide “nap rooms” may boost productivity.

Sleep deprivation affects brain function, memory, heart health and makes people prone to depression, diabetes, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Also, “a brain that is hungry for sleep will get it, even when you don’t expect it.” (National Sleep Foundation)  Fall asleep in class much? What about during meetings?

All this is another good reason to turn off the electronic devices at a reasonable hour to allow ourselves more shut-eye. The effects of sleep deprivation have been fairly intensely studied, and it doesn’t matter if you are majorly sleep-deprived or only partially sleep-deprived — mood is affected, motor functions are affected, and a host of other physical and mental processes are affected, none for the good. Skipping sleep can be harmful, or even deadly, especially if you’re behind the wheel, which documents more than 100,000 car crashes a year due to drowsiness.

So turn off the TV, leave your phone downstairs, and get to bed in time to allow yourself 7-8 hours of sleep, the amount recommended if you’re an adult, or 9-10 hours a night if you’re a teenager. Reap the benefits and we’ll all be the better for it. (Yes, I need to follow my own advice…)

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Social Media Leads to Sleep Disturbance

There’s an eye-opener. (Cue the sarcasm.) It now turns out that being on social media can interrupt your sleep. A study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has determined that young adults who check social media on a daily or weekly basis have more problems sleeping than their peers who use it less often. The participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had three times the likelihood of sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked least frequently.

Granted, this is a single study of 1,788 participants, and more are needed to verify the validity of this one, “particularly to determine whether social media use contributes to sleep disturbance, whether sleep disturbance contributes to social media use – or both.” My kid will testify to my nagging that looking at her iPhone in the dark will ruin her eyes. Now I have further fodder to add to my badgering.

I personally leave my phone downstairs to charge when I go to bed. I can’t check email during the workday, as it’s blocked. I get on Facebook once or twice a week, tweet once or twice a month, and don’t have SnapChat. I can’t personally attest to the authenticity of this study, but it makes sense that anything that sucks attention the way social media does would have some kind of negative effect. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that social media disrupts sleep. I hope at some point people will sit up and take notice, get their noses out of their phones, and regain some sort of equilibrium in their lives. Not to mention a better night’s sleep.

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Interactive screen time vs. TV

I have long been a proponent of kicking electronic devices out of the classroom, and I just found more evidence that interactive screen time (Internet surfing, social media use, texting, etc.) contributes to physical changes such as smaller brain size and cognitive malfunction. There are studies in respected medical journals that affirm those findings: they state that excessive screen time (or even just “regular” screen exposure) impairs brain structure and neurological function, with much of the damage occurring in the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where massive changes occur from puberty to young adulthood, and it “determines success in every area of life–from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.” (Psychology Today)

A study by Lin, Zhou, Lei, et al., summarizes it this way: “Taken together, [studies show] Internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.” Brain scan research findings include grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, and cravings and impaired dopamine function. In other words, electronic device addiction is really bad for you, but especially so for those with young, developing brains. As a result, children are suffering from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system: what is called electronic screen syndrome.

So, screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy, and it’s changing the physical structure of their brains. What else is new? I see the effects every day in the teens I work with. I see the fractured attention spans, the apathy, the poor focus, and the often explosive and aggressive behavior. I see it in the lack of respect, both for their peers and for authority. I see it as they walk along in the hallways with their heads buried in their phones. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

What can be done to mitigate the effects of screen addiction? Another study I found states that all young people can benefit from a tech fast (from gaming, smartphones, laptops, iPads). This means no interactive screen time for a solid three to four weeks. Refraining from tech use can help to restore sleep patterns, enhance mood and increase relaxation, contribute to better focus, and improve relations in school/work, home life, and social interactions. Reconnecting with nature and green spaces can also lead to increased physical activity, perhaps helping reduce the high amount of obesity running rampant across the country.

The problem, as I see it, is getting parents on board with the idea of eliminating technology for any period of time. They are often the worst offenders in texting their children during class, leading to the assertion, “Well, I had to respond, it’s my mom!” Bollocks. Parents shouldn’t be contacting their children during the school day; if it’s an emergency, call the front office to inform the student between classes, just like the good ol’ days. (It seems the parents need the break from technology as much as their kids do.) But if parents can be made to see the light, giving kids a sustained break from technology can lead to many rewards.

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Facebook as addictive as cocaine?

So there’s a study (published in 2014 but just going viral now) that claims that Facebook has a similar effect on the brain as cocaine. The study sample was just 20 college students from the US, out of 45 initially screened for inclusion. The method used was to scan the brains of the participants using functional MRIs, while measuring the responses to signs and symbols associated with Facebook. (PubMed Health, Feb. 2016) Apparently, the subjects reacted more quickly to Facebook symbols than to road signs. The scans showed increased activity in the amygdala-striatal area of the brain, an area of emotions and motivation.

The researchers said people in their study with low to medium levels of addiction-like symptoms “have a hyperactive amygdala-striatal system, which makes this ‘addiction’ similar to many other addictions”. However, they added: “they do not have a hypoactive prefrontal lobe inhibition system, which makes it different from many other addictions, such as to illicit substances.” (PubMed Health, Feb. 2016)  In other words, saying that Facebook is addictive like cocaine is a bit of a stretch, putting it mildly. The term “addiction” may not be the best to describe the situation as well, with the words “a strong bad habit” being perhaps more accurate in describing the responses.

Is Facebook as addictive as cocaine? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but I would say that electronic device use in teens and young adults could stand to be studied. I observe teens every day that cannot go an entire class period without once glancing at their cell phones. No amount of shaming or consequences (short of removing the device from their possession) have any effect on the connected individuals. This is where the studies need to concentrate. Forget about Facebook use — try getting kids to go without Twitter, Snap Chat, Instagram, or texting for that matter. They walk in the hallways with their noses deep into their phones, looking like the Zombie Apocalypse has already occurred.

I do the best I can to set a good example by moderate, discreet use of my cell phone; you will never see me use my phone in a hallway, or in the library for that matter. I save it for lunch, and only if necessary, and only in my office. I get frustrated when teachers (or other adults) that I’m talking to whip out their phones in the middle of a conversation; with examples like this, how can I expect to reach my students? I realize that there’s a limit to what I can accomplish this way, but it won’t stop me from trying, and it won’t stop me from gently pointing out to my students just how ridiculous it is to have their noses buried in a phone all the time, and how rude it is to look at their device when someone is trying to talk to them. The end of good manners is a warning sign to our society (cue the political debates), but I will continue to be a one-woman crusade to save them. Someone’s got to do it.

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One Bad Tweet Can Ruin Your Whole Day

“Never let a 140 character tweet cost you a $140,000 scholarship,” tweeted Brandon Chambers, an assistant men’s basketball coach at Marymount (VA) University. Three years earlier, a potential basketball scholarship athlete had his recruitment brutally terminated because of his Twitter activity, which the coaches said “did not represent what the university was about.” (USA Today, Jan. 5, 2015) More and more, colleges (and businesses) are requiring applicants to provide social media IDs to better screen who would be the best “fit” and to evaluate character. Woe be to him or her who posts inappropriate material, whether offensive language, derogatory comments, or incriminating photos. “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences”, says David Petroff, director of athletic communications at Edgewood (Wis.) College.Teens need to realize and take responsibility for their online actions just as carefully as physical ones.

Many college and university athletic directors are using social media to check out the integrity of their potential athletes. It’s important to remember that once you put something out in the Twitterverse or on Instagram, it’s out there, it’s public. There are plenty of examples of celebrities tweeting something rash, only to have to retract it after public outcry. In the collegiate athletic world, you don’t even get that chance. (Pro football player rants abound, however–go figure.)

I have a moderate to low social media presence by choice. I have a Facebook page, Twitter (rarely use), Instagram (even more rarely), a blog, and a LinkedIn account that I haven’t updated in years. I post only those things that I could shout in church, and I’m constantly reminding my students to think before they send anything out onto the interwebs. If one bad tweet can ruin an athlete’s career (or any career for that matter), it behooves all of us to remind our teens of the calamitous effect of posting without reflection. (Of course, the whole “think before you speak/act” phrase has been around for ages…)

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Print books vs. digital — vindication!

I’ve long been a proponent of “real” books vis à vis digital editions, and I often feel like a dinosaur clinging to life as the earth crumbles around me. Print books are easy to hold, you can go back to a previous page easily, and they don’t require batteries, but e-books weigh less, take up less space in an airplane carry-on, and are easier to read at night without disturbing a partner. My husband bought me a Kindle Fire tablet, and while I have indeed read a book or two on it I mostly use it to access the Internet or play Angry Birds. (There’s a video on YouTube about how paper has a strong future, and it makes me laugh every time I watch it.) And in many of the journals I read (in print!) it’s all about one-to-one programs, more access to e-books, and increasing access to online sources. But now there comes a book that has found that young people, even those considered “digital natives,” prefer books over tablets. The book, by Naomi S. Baron, is titled “Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World,” which is profiled in an article by Cory Doctorow, on the website “Boing, boing.” The book is an analysis of how we read and how reading is affected both in print or onscreen. E-reading, Baron argues, does not encourage the kind of in-depth reading that a print book does. Furthermore, e-reading lends itself to distraction and skimming, and multi-tasking becomes rampant. Baron “reaches past the hype of both sides of the discussion” in presenting what can be gained from e-reading and what may be lost by no longer reaching for a printed book. (Amazon.com, 2015)

Another article reviewing the same book is written by a reporter from the Washington Post, Michael S. Rosenwald. The article, titled “Why Digital Natives Prefer Print – Yes, You Read That Right,” touches on some of Baron’s insights on the surveys she conducted for her research. Interestingly, “building a physical map in my mind of where things are,” a reason given by one student as to why he prefers print, squared with Baron’s findings. (Rosenwald, 2015) Others mentioned the fact that it’s easier to find your place in a print book, and print allows for greater absorption of material.

So, to my great delight, paper books aren’t going away anytime soon, and the evidence is mounting that paper and digital books can co-exist side-by-side. This mirrors what I see in my library, as students vastly prefer reading print books over digital. They may have e-readers on their phones and iPads, but not a single one has ever come up to me and asked to add an e-book to the collection. My personal preference will always be print, even though I have been known to reach for a “classic” novel on my Kindle; the major reason I prefer print is, however, the fact that I like to re-read certain passages from the beginning of a novel when I’m almost finished with it. I will continue to monitor my students’ preferences and I’m open to purchasing e-books in the future, but for now, the printed word vigorously survives.

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