Is Digital Learning Damaging Your Teenager’s Education?

I remember a lot of things about being in primary school but one of my fondest memories from the time is the smell of fresh books. I remember the excitement I would get when we’d have to change textbooks once we moved to a higher level and the sheer joy I’d feel when I saw and touched the books. This continued for years and it was one of the most exciting things about advancing from class to class, but maybe I was just a nerd.

Education has evolved since then. Instead of hard-copy books we can touch and smell, many schools now teach pupils and students with e-books using e-lessons on computers and tablets. No doubt, this has made things quicker and more convenient for many teenagers, especially during the pandemic period. It would have been terrible if education had to be put on hold until everyone could attend physical classrooms to hold physical books because there was no other way to learn. Also, from the standpoint of conservatism, it’s more environmentally-friendly, as the less paper is needed for books, the fewer trees will have to be felled to create books.

Clearly, screens have their purpose and sometimes they make learning easier but an abundance of research today shows that just as digital learning has its pros, compared to the traditional method of learning with books, there are just as many cons. For example, when reading on a phone, tablet or computer screen, students have the ability to scroll through information very quickly, word-spot and skim. This helps them to get to the point of the text faster but it also encourages glossing over important pieces of information and this could create gaps in the learning process. It’s not as easy to scroll past important information when you’re reading a printed book. Skimming is still possible but not at the same rate. The truth is that today’s generation of children and teenagers have become experts at scrolling and skimming, not because scrolling takes literally zero effort but because it has become such a routine activity. They scroll when on social media and since they spend a considerable amount of time doing this, it’s practically second-nature to them.

Reduced attention span is also a major factor. Many teenagers have very short attention span and most online content is now geared towards feeding that frenzied consumption of data. Whether it’s the ability to fast-forward video clips or skip ads or simply scroll past information deemed to be irrelevant or boring, teenagers are being taught to be less-focused on the content and more focused on the speed at which they can consume the content so they can move on to the next thing as quickly as possible. This doesn’t help because in most cases, it affects comprehension.

Furthermore, there’s the element of distraction. When reading on a phone or tablet, because there are many other functions of such devices, one could easily get distracted by notifications which may pop-up on the screen. For a teenager already struggling to comprehend a certain text, such a notification will easily steal their attention away from that difficult or boring page and onto something else they may find interesting.

Despite this, it has been argued, that students that use interactive touch screens are more engaged with learning and that this technology improves education. If anything, this proves that the answer to the question of which medium is better for learning is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. This means that we cannot simply conclude that print books are better for learning than screens. For certain sets of students, learning with screens that are colourful, stimulating and interesting is more beneficial to them than plain white or brown sheets of papers which they will find boring and hard to concentrate on, let alone learn anything from. Dyslexic children and teenagers usually fall into this category of learners.

At the same time, we cannot cut out all forms of digital learning entirely, it may just be a matter of learning how to read/study with a screen without getting distracted. It may be inevitable especially if their school mandates it. It takes discipline which is a very useful trait for any teenager to have, to succeed in this highly digitalised world.

Here are a few easy steps that can help your teenager overcome the danger of distraction when reading from a screen:

  • Don’t Multitask: It’s tempting for a student to think he/she can read a book and browse at the same time. That’s not a good idea. Having multiple tabs open at once that you can easily switch between makes it hard to concentrate while reading.
  • Turn off the Internet Connection: For many teenagers, this is a must-do because as long as they have access to the internet while studying, they are never going to concentrate. The temptation to either check social media or browse using the internet browser will be too strong. But if there is no internet connection, there’s no chance of them getting distracted that way. Even if they don’t intend to browse, internet connection = pop-up notifications and this in itself is already distracting enough. Unless of course, they need the internet connection to study or take online lessons. In that case, they will need to be disciplined enough to focus only on the lesson and nothing else. Turning off these notifications is also a good idea.
  • Eliminate Stress, Fatigue and Hunger: Even while reading print materials or hard-copy books, these factors could still distract any student, how much more when they have to focus on reading from a screen. Your teenager should ensure they are not sleep-deprived, stressed, tired or hungry while attempting to study digitally, as these things decrease their chances of assimilating the content they read.
  • Take Notes: Writing/jotting things down as you read is one of the best ways to make sure you are actively engaging with the material. Reading can easily become passive, but when a student takes on the additional task of jotting down or summarising the chapter being read, this forces the brain to understand what is being read and studying becomes a less passive activity.
  • You can always print anything that needs deeper reading: Aside from all that has already been said about screen learning,prolonged reading on screens may have long-term effects on a person’s vision. So, it is advised that if your teenager has to read long texts or texts that require more than one reading, as most texts do, it is better to print it out and avoid the negative effects of protracted screentime. If your teenager doesn’t get very far while reading/studying on-screen for whatever reason, this will definitely solve that problem.

In conclusion, the reality of the education system today is that screens and digital text are here to stay. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, this isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Still, it is best that children have a solid foundation using the traditional method of learning from books. Then as they grow and develop and become more mature, they can graduate to learning with screens. Research after research has shown that reading from books enables students to read slower and comprehend better. In the end, what is most important is that they are able to strike a balance which helps them to effectively comprehend through either method.