Are We Undermining Our Children’s Education?

A mindful use of digital media in the home and classroom

How difficult is it nowadays to engage the whole family in a talk? Or if you’re a teacher, how difficult is it to engage a class of students?

One cause cited by parents and teachers for this increased difficulty with face-to-face group discussions at home and in school is the almost ubiquitous presence of cell phones and other digital media in our lives today. A teacher and former colleague recently told me that students even use their phones to order food to be delivered in the middle of a class. When I asked why she put up with it, she said she couldn’t do anything about it. It was too engrained in the school (and national) culture.

I find this frightening. How can anyone learn well, or engage with others in meaningful discussions, when their attention is tuned to the expectation of a text?

Self-Reflective Questions For Parents And Teachers About Media Use

Teachers and other adults can be as addicted to their devices as children. We can all benefit by increasing our self-awareness.  

How much time do you spend on your phone, computer, and social media?

How do you feel when you see your children on their phones when you are trying to talk with them? How do you think they feel when you are on the phone when they are trying to talk with you? Who do you prioritize: the person standing before you, or the one on the phone?

Did you want to stop reading this post as soon as you realized what it was about?

Meetings are essential to facilitate family or staff cooperation. When I first started teaching, I looked forward to staff meetings. It was often the only time I could talk with other teachers to share strategies and feelings.

Are your staff or family meetings a comfortable place to be, where people listen patiently, empathically, and diligently to each other?

What percentage of the staff or family spends meetings with their minds locked on some device instead of on the people in the room?

Many teachers have developed creative ways to incorporate student’s media and cell phone habit in classroom exercises, for example by having students use their devices to research material or respond to each other digitally instead of face-to-face. This can be useful, but we always have to ask what children learn from such techniques.

Are such practices helping you teach or model how to have empathic, caring relationships, both online and in person?

Or are they contributing to the unease with face-to-face conversations that many young people feel?

Digital media give us a gift of ready information. But we need to be aware of the price we pay for the habitual use of this technology. We can grow to expect instant answers and thus lose patience with any desire for depth. We can come to expect 24/7 access to our children and friends or mistake the goal of relationships for possessing great numbers of “friends” we can count and use for our personal aims. We can mistake the goal of education for merely gaining more bits of information to show off or use in the future. We need to remember that people are not bits of information.

Questions And Activities For Children

There are many children now who don’t feel comfortable arranging face-time together with their peers. Everything is arranged for them, not by them. This, combined with problematic cell phone use, can lead to isolation, anxiety and possibly narcissism.

Instead of just imposing rules, be an ally of your students and children. Ask what they like and don’t like in general about cell phones.

Talk with students about media holidays, days or segments of a class where all devices must be put away. Make agreements that you, too, will follow.

To effectively examine with students the role of digital devices in the classroom, start by asking sincere questions about how to learn together. You can ask these questions as part of a discussion, or have them write and share their answers either with the whole class or in small groups.

What does community or family mean to you? How do you want to be treated here?

For teenagers especially, you might ask: Do you ever find yourself yearning for a deeper life, or wanting something but you don’t know what it is?

Practicing Mindfulness

Ask students if they are interested in learning how to think more clearly and feel more powerful. If they say yes, ask if they have practiced mindfulness. Assign and discuss research on its uses. Then students will ask you to let them practice.  

Can you feel power over your own your own life if you don’t understand your own mind?

Mindfulness practice is one of the best ways to develop clarity of thinking as well as self-understanding. It is not only a practice you could do daily but a state of mind characterized by moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations and relationships. It allows us to notice the early stages of anxiety or habitual behavior, so we can interrupt either.

Do you only want to read about it, or do you want to experience it?

Would you prefer a few minutes of practice to start each day, or once or twice a week?

Model and practice with your children:

When you feel an impulse to turn to any social media platform, take 2 calming breaths and then ask yourself: Why do I want to do this now? Is it simply habit?

This way you create a gap between impulse and response. You decrease automatic behavior and increase insight.

A Little Compassion Goes A Long Way

If you’re on a social media platform and you notice yourself getting angry or feeling hurt:

Close your eyes, take a few breaths, and imagine the person who triggered your feelings. What exactly was said that set you off?

Then go back and check if what was said matches what you imagined. Ask yourself:

What might he or she have been feeling when she said it? What might she have been thinking? Why might she have said this? If she was angry, imagine the pain she might have been feeling.

Then shift your focus.

If you know this person outside of social media, or even if you don’t, is what you imagine this person meant by her text or tweet or whatever consistent with what you experienced in the past?

In your imagination, wish for him a sense of calm or peace, an easing of his pain.

Then shift to your breath. Notice the sensations or feelings that arise as you breathe in and out. Feel how your body expands as you inhale—and let’s go, relaxes, settles down as you exhale. Maybe feel your shoulders expand as you inhale. And as you exhale, notice how your shoulders drop, let go, and relax. Just sit for a second with that sense of relaxation and letting go.


In our world today, not only are we bombarded with messages to keep up with the latest technology, we feel that doing so makes us appear more important. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation that we are valued.

So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected means being less valuable. They fear what they might miss (FOMO), even to the extent of keeping their phones with them at night, which can interfere with sleep and contribute to anxiety and depression. This serves the interest of big corporations whose primary interest is in turning children into malleable consumers, not clear-thinking adults.

It is our responsibility as parents and teachers to model for our children how to feel more in control and less controlled by their cell phones and other media.

When students feel the class is a safe community, concerned with the issues that stir them, they will more readily engage in the class. They will engage even in discussions that require questioning of their own habits and beliefs, even in questioning and becoming more aware of their habitual use of their phones and other media.

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner. While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching.

This post is adapted from one originally published by

See also:
How Big Wireless War-Gamed The Science On Risks, While Making Customers Addicted To Their Phones
The Downside of Multitasking: The Benefits of Being Present