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Learning to Sit with Emotions, Not a Screen | Teacher Talk

Since this is my second post about phones, it’s safe to assume that phones and screen time are a big deal when it comes to learning. In 2023 Florida passed a law requiring schools to ban phone use during class, in 2022 Italy did the same, and in 2021 China declared that students could not bring phones to school (New York Times, 2023). Without a doubt, the presence of phones in class can distract from learning for many students.

Another problem I see with excessive phone use and screen time is a decrease in people’s ability to regulate emotions.

I am guilty. I have used my phone to help me escape difficult emotions. I have given my children a screen to help them (and me) escape their difficult emotions. Rest assured, it's reasonable to occasionally and briefly use screen time to escape or settle overwhelming emotions. What research tells us is dangerous is when escape from emotions through screens becomes frequent and automatic. A study out of the University of Michigan in 2022 found that “frequent use of devices like smartphones and tablets to calm upset children ages 3-5 was associated with increased emotional dysregulation.” The study’s lead author Jenny Radesky, M.D. explained,

"Particularly in early childhood, devices may displace opportunities for development of independent and alternative methods to self-regulate."

As teachers, we use the term regulate a lot to describe a person’s relationship with their own emotions. Emotional regulation indicates that people can identify what they are feeling, why they are feeling that way, how they can lean into addressing the catalyst, and how they can manage those feelings for emotional wellbeing in the present and the future. Emotional dysregulation occurs when one feels controlled by emotion to the point that their responsibilities and relationships suffer. Most of my colleagues agree that emotional dysregulation has become a significant concern in classrooms (We Are Teachers, 2023).

We must be cognizant of how much we, our children, and our students rely on a screen to regulate and escape emotions at the expense of finding and practicing strategies for processing emotions. A 2023 article in Psychology Today put it this way: “Scrolling is a nice break, but too much encourages disassociation and detachment.” Instead of reaching for a screen, breathe deeply, journal, talk about your feelings with a good listener, spend time in nature, exercise, or get creative.

I am very intentional and direct in teaching my students how to function in a world with constant access to phones and other screens. Not only do I teach phone etiquette and the repercussions of phone distractions on relationships, responsibilities, and their own mindfulness, but I also talk about what to do instead of reaching for that phone (or for younger ones that tablet) by sharing and practicing the strategies above. I’ve also grown as a lesson planner. If my lessons are engaging and full of face-to-face interaction with peers, phones don’t come out. (Admittedly, there’s usually one or two students out of thirty who need extra reminders, but that’s just one or two!) Creating trusted connections with my students and an emotionally safe environment has also been vital because when students get uncomfortable, a whole lot of them escape into a phone.

I know many folks want a flat out ban of phones in schools. In American high schools especially, that seems impossible. Students have a lot of technology to circumvent those bans, and in an era of school shootings, many American parents want their children to be able to call them or even 911 at a moment’s notice. In place of such bans, revamped lesson plans and intentional help with processing and regulating emotions is essential for students to learn and grow.

Gina Benz has taught for over 23 years in South Dakota. She currently teaches Teacher Pathway (a class she helped develop), English 3, English 3 for immigrant and refugee students, and AP English Language at Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, as well as Technology in Education at the University of Sioux Falls.

In 2015 Gina was one of 37 educators in the nation to receive the Milken Educator Award. Since then she has written and spoken on a state and national level about teacher recruitment and grading practices. Before that she received the Presidential Scholar Program Teacher Recognition Award and Roosevelt High School’s Excellence in Instruction Award in 2012 and the Coca-Cola Educator of Distinction Award in 2007.