How much is too much?

By Hilary Asquith Kawakawa head teacher

This week the Stuff news site published an article that discussed the latest data from the 2018 PISA survey. The survey found that New Zealand’s 15 year-olds are spending an average of 42 hours a week online of which only 84 minutes was within school hours. This was an increase of an additional 22 hours from the 2012 survey. I found this information shocking and yet not unsurprising. There has been a tremendous increase in the use of screens in previous years. This has been well documented and COVID-19 has seen many in our community increase their time online even further. However, the publication of this data really did cause me to stop and reflect on what the implications are for our ākonga and why they were making these choices to begin with?

I feel that it is a difficult path that we are following, and we must seek out someone who can teach us something more practical. This ‘someone’ who can teach us is the child. The child can reveal to us the origin of society and can show us the way out of this intricate question. Our task is to give help to the child and watch for what he will reveal to us. Maria Montessori, Citizen of the world, pg. 27.

So what are the youth of New Zealand revealing to us through this data? Reflecting on this I began to question the possibility of links between time online, compromised focus and the capacity to develop grit and perseverance? This is an important connection to contemplate given that being able to sustain focus is a necessary requirement in developing the capacities of perseverance and grit.

“Perseverance requires us to have relentless faith in the importance of our work despite the obstacles we face… one must have a strong and developed will to keep disciplined and remain focused on what we know is valuable and worthy of our energy… Grittiness requires absolute and undivided attention to what is in front of us.” Molly O’Shaughnessy, The Observation Artist The NAMTA Journal. Vol 41, No.3 2016.

There is plenty of well documented research that shows that increased time online (in particular time on social media), correlates with increased mental health risks. I am personally curious to dig deeper into the research to find out whether yet another impact of increased screen time is an erosion of attention span due to the flood of instant gratification of click-bait, sound bites, Tik tok clips, endless streaming, or simulated gaming experiences. It seems obvious to think that they might be and I am fairly sure that research most likely exists. The question then arises, is time online then also impacting the capacity to develop the grittiness required to manage life’s adversities? Is the lack of focus another angle on what is contributing to the epidemic of mental health concerns in New Zealand?

Maggie Jackson’s 2008 book Distracted states, “Attention also tames our inner beasts… People who focus well report feeling less fear, frustration, and sadness day to day, partly because they can literally deploy their attention away from the negatives of life.” Molly O’Shaughnessy furthers this discussion with, “One of attention’s highest forms is ‘effortful control’ which involves the ability to shift focus… and regulate one’s impulses.” 

But what of our attention? What might the averages of weekly screen time of the adults responsible for children look like? What time are we as parents or guides spending on screens? Is our time on screens having the dual effect of not only impacting our own capacity to be focused but also taking us away from the day-to-day attentiveness in our roles alongside our taitamariki? And why are our young people self-selecting time online in the first place anyway? Is the adolescent’s choice of routine screen time partially a consequence of the adult’s inattentiveness to begin with? A flow on consequence of the lack of purposeful engagement with others or other materials within their environment? Are our Montessori ākonga any different to the published New Zealand PISA averages? Do they have a different relationship to social media and screens than their mainstream peers? We would hope so but how do we know? How might we find out?

The great benefit we can bestow on childhood is the exercise of restraint in ourselves.Maria Montessori, Maria Montessori speaks to parents, p. 18

Some of these questions are big and profoundly challenging. It would take significant further research and personal introspection to unpack. However, I feel there are questions enough here to warrant a little reflection time around what we are all modelling for our young people, and how we are preparing the environment within our own homes and classrooms to allow students to foster a deep capacity to focus and reflect, in order to build purposeful, and positive lives. Screens are useful tools for learning, they provide a wonderful window out into the world and they can aid students who need additional support to manage their day-to-day learning, but we all need to honestly reflect on how much is too much, for both them and for ourselves.