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Adopting a middle way towards the use of mobile phones and other devices in the classroom

Posted on: 23 Jan 2018
Posted by: Jesse Elzinga

Jesse Elzinga, headmaster at Reading Blue Coat School, writes an in-depth blog discussing the addictive qualities of many digital platforms and arguing that social media can threaten our independence, agency and autonomy.

Schools across the country have different approaches to managing mobile phone use amongst pupils. This year I have visited independent schools that have policies on both extremes: one liberal, urban school where there are almost no rules or restrictions about when or where pupils can use phones, and one more traditional, rural school, where phones have been banned completely during the school day.


We have adopted what Aristotle often advised: a middle way. There are few things that we can ban from a young person’s life; equally, young people need to learn about boundaries and proper behaviour. Our policy is such a simple one that it can be summarised in two sentences: pupils may use their mobile devices in school during break or lunchtime, only in their designated common room. The only other time a pupil may use their mobile phone during the school day is following a direct instruction from a member of staff.


As for outside of school, both now and in the future, I know that I have a duty to educate our pupils on best practice with the use of these devices. Part of educating young people is empowering them with knowledge and awareness of why mobile phones and social media are so addictive. In order to do this, I looked at recent research and publications, and I pulled together some advice that I circulated to our school community last week. I started by relating to the students, and admitting, that I love Facebook. And I have for almost 15 years. (One teenager remarked to me last week that ‘Facebook is for old people’, but the advice that follows is still relevant!)


It Started with Facebook: I Know – I Was There


A large part of the reason I am fond of Facebook is that I lived through its inception.


I remember arriving at Harvard as an undergraduate and receiving a copy of the ‘Freshman Facebook’. This was a year book that had a photograph, along with a brief biography, of everyone starting in our year group. We sat around in our dorm room and we looked through the book: who had we met? Who did we want to meet? We wrote comments in ink next to photographs.


Eventually we forgot about the ‘Freshman Facebook’ and got on with our lives and university. A couple of years later at the boat house, two of the other rowers, twins as it happened, were talking about putting the ‘Freshman Facebook’ on the internet. I remember laughing about the idea – we loved the ‘Freshman Facebook’ in our first few weeks, but no one would actually want that online? Apparently Harvard University agreed: they had no interest in putting it online. The two rowers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, decided to do it anyway. I thought it was risky and forgot about it.


A couple of years later, facebook.com was launched. The original version was only open to people with a Harvard email address. I was in the wave of people who first joined – in fact 1200 Harvard students signed up in the first 24 hours. Eventually, of course, it spread to other US universities and by September 2006, the restriction of only allowing students to sign up was lifted; anyone with an email address could register. So I like Facebook. I was there from the beginning. Yet, in recent months, I’ve read some worrying articles that raise concerns about what the company has become. And the worrying thing is that these concerns have been revealed by people who worked at Facebook, and are now avoiding the platform, and offering warnings to users.


Employees Becoming Critics


Justin Rosenstein is one example of a Facebook worker who is now an outspoken critic of his former employer, and other online media platforms. Despite his current scepticism, Justin has an important place in history: he is the software engineer who created the ‘like’ button on Facebook, which was introduced in 2009.


In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rosenstein notes that social media platforms actively work to make their users addicted, because more use means more advertising, and that means more money. The ‘like’ feature was incredibly successful in this area. Engagement soared as people enjoyed the short-term boost they got from receiving or giving social affirmation, which led them to upload more content.


Facebook gathers significant data about each user as every swipe, like and click is documented, making Facebook even better placed to keep you hooked: they target each user with customised content that they will like. And Facebook is making more money than ever: last year they made more than £10 on every user in the UK.


Twitter and Instagram similarly use ‘like’ buttons in order to gather data on users, which again makes them more attractive to advertisers. The ‘like’ feature seems harmless, but it is an addictive loop that is highly profitable for these businesses.


There are conferences and books in Silicon Value about how to build habit-forming products: there is even ‘Persuasive Tech Lab’ at Stanford University where students learn tricks to keep users online. They aim to create a pull for you to visit YouTube, Facebook or Twitter for a few minutes, and then find yourself still there an hour later. That is their very intention; the websites are designed to suck you in.


Beware of the Digital Addiction Traps


In the same way ‘likes’ or ‘shares’ keep you engaged and involved on some platforms, the autoplay feature on YouTube and Netflix is designed to keep you watching: you don’t even have to touch anything, and you’re stuck in your seat for another video. And again they customise content to make it harder for you to resist the next video. Even Facebook now autoplays videos in a newsfeed to keep your attention.


Snapchat’s most successful method of addicting users is the ‘Snapstreaks’ feature, encouraging users never to miss a day communicating with other users. If you’re involved in a Snapstreak, be aware that it is not your relationship or you that is winning, but the company has successfully played with your mind, and made you an addict. The Snapstreak keeps you on their platform, every day, and then they make more money from you as user. Rosenstein compares Snapchat to heroin – the most addictive and dangerous of all drugs.


The algorithms at these companies are so sophisticated that they now know what time of day you are likely to feel vulnerable, lonely, bored or insecure. As they track your behaviour, they carefully manipulate when they reveal your likes to you, or the type of content you receive in your feed, and do so at a time when you derive the most satisfaction from it. With every move, they are making you more addicted to their app.


Yet there is more: initially, notification icons on Facebook were blue, but they discovered that a red was much more effective. Red is a colour that commands your brain’s attention; it is trigger colour and causes alarm, immediately seducing you to open the app and read the message. Blackberries have a red flashing light when you get a message. Apps, such as Whatsapp, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, all use a red alert when you have a notification.


Social Media and Gambling: Similar Tricks for Addicts


The red notification plays on the same psychology mechanism that makes gambling so addictive: variable rewards. When you tap on the red notification, you don’t know what email there will be, or how many likes will be revealed, or how good the photo, even though often it is something disappointing. Yet the possibility of a great reward, or great anti-climax, is what builds suspense and makes it so addictive.


Yet there is more: the ‘pull-to-refresh’ mechanism is also designed to keep you hooked; you will know this well as iPhones use it for email and most social media feeds use it too. This is when you swipe down, pause and wait to see what content appears. Each swipe is like gambling at a slot machine: you just don’t know what’s coming next. Sometimes it is the most beautiful photo of your friend’s puppy. Sometimes it is an advertisement.


Technology has now far surpassed this mechanism as feeds can be instantly updated. But social media platforms continue to use it because it is so addictive. The inventor of this mechanism, again rather wealthy as he sold the mechanism to Twitter, now monitors his own smartphone use closely. He has turned off all push notifications, and restricts his messaging app to only his wife and close friends. He is trying to get himself off Twitter where he admits he is just reading stupid news he already knows. He charges his phone in his kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it again until the morning.


He acknowledges that smartphones are useful, but he admits his creation, ‘pull-to-refresh’ is addictive, just like other social media tricks.


Now You Know: What Will You Do?


Rosenstein and others, who are incredibly wealthy from working in technology, often ban their own children from having devices. Some of them have routers in their homes that cut off internet access at certain times of day. They don’t take their phones into the bedroom because they know that phones are designed to keep users up at night: you may be suffering from sleep deprivation, but the apps are making money from your addiction to your phone. In fact, the CEO of Netflix recently said in public that the company has three main rivals: Facebook, YouTube and sleep.


Ultimately your phone and its apps are playing with your mind and making you addicted. Programmers are using likes, Snapstreaks, autoplay, red notification alerts, and pull to refresh, and I have hardly even mentioned push notifications. These tools play on the same psychological tricks that make humans susceptible to gambling and drug additions. Every buzz and ping on your phone releases chemicals in your brain, which give you pleasure, making you curious and excited about the next beep or bling. As one Apple engineer says, ‘It’s not inherently evil to bring people back to your product, it is capitalism.’


And there’s the rub. The critics of Facebook and Google now say that the companies’ supposedly lofty aims of bringing people together or easing the access to knowledge are really just marketing ploys that try to make them seem innocent or even noble, as if they are making the world a better place. In reality, these are highly successful capitalistic companies that are trying to make you more addicted, so that they can make more money by advertising. A former president of Facebook explained that internally, there is a clear objective at the company: ‘How do we consume as much user time and conscious attention as possible?’


Closing Thoughts


Now I’m not expecting any pupil to throw away their phones or delete every app I’ve mentioned. But we need to be aware that these companies are all highly profitable because they are highly effective at making you addicted. They have invested enormous sums of money in mechanisms that will keep all of us swiping and taping and watching, on average more than 2000 times a day, and the more we touch our phone, the more money they make. They are trying to turn our conversations into streaks, they are trying to make us fear missing out on anything on their page, and they are certainly trying to keep us at night.


These companies are not neutral, and they do not exist to benefit society. All of us, as human beings, are vulnerable to persuasion. Social media threatens our independence, agency and autonomy – by this I mean the control that we have of our everyday life.


At the end of the day, all that we have in life is our time and our attention. So step back and think about it: what is time well spent? Is it in front of a screen, or is it actually enjoying relationships, outdoors, in the real world? How much of our life, likes and independence will we give to these companies? It’s a question we all need to consider.


I do think that knowledge is power, and with this knowledge, perhaps young people – and even adults – will be better placed to control our own time and attention, and make the most of today, this week, this term and beyond.

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About Jesse Elzinga

Jesse Elzinga is headmaster at Reading Blue Coat School.