Decisions Made by Dopamine

How addictions to phones can prohibit students’ ability to learn and focus

Gabrielle Williams, Opinion and Entertainment Editor

It’s no secret that social media and constant access to technology has had a vast impact on society. There are countless studies on how social media affects mental health, self esteem, and physical activity. However, there aren’t very many studies out there that discuss social media’s effect on our learning.

With the rise of TikTok over the last few years; the consumption of short videos and quick content has increased. Watching short videos for hours on end lowers your attention span and makes watching longer videos much more difficult. We can see this through the popularity of TikTok and the downfall of YouTube. From 2010 to 2018, YouTube was the place to be. Most “influencers” of the time were popular YouTubers. But after 2019, TikTok gained popularity and it seemed as if everyone switched from ten minute videos to fifteen second videos. Content shortened, but the amount of information didn’t. Social media began breaking down larger concepts into smaller videos, which as a result changed the way we learn.

Back in October, I was spending an incredible amount of time on TikTok, which got in the way of doing things I genuinely enjoyed. I noticed that when I talked about my addiction to TikTok, most of my peers would agree. I would constantly hear things like, “I can’t put it down even though I feel bad when I’m on it.” So, I decided to quit TikTok cold turkey. I deleted the app in the beginning of October and haven’t redownloaded it since. Afterwards, I noticed a complete change in my study habits and ability to focus at school. Long articles in English class didn’t feel as long anymore, and homework assignments felt like less of a lengthy burden. I felt myself gaining back the attention span that had dwindled so much during the three years I spent on TikTok. I was hoping I could find some answers or people who related to my experience. But the lack of information on the effects of social media on learning took me by surprise. So I asked some teachers at our school about their thoughts on the subject of the rise of technology and social media in the classroom.

It can seem rather dramatic or even silly to compare a reliance on a cell phone to an addiction, but they are not too far off from each other. Addictions happen when something changes the way the brain feels pleasure. When someone picks up their phone and they get a hit of dopamine, that makes them want to continue picking up their phone. Just like any other addiction, our phones can make doing other tasks much more challenging throughout the day. One of our own English teachers, Libby Reed, discusses this idea.

“The ability for young people to customize their whole existence around what they WANT to do is really to blame […] students can’t focus because my content doesn’t hit their dopamine receptors,” Reed said. Most people are aware of their reliance on their cell phone, and they are also aware of how often they pick it up just because they feel like they need to. Focusing and learning at school is becoming harder with time because it’s one of the few activities that forces students to separate themselves from the phones they are desperately clutching onto. Just knowing that the phone is inches away can sometimes get in the way of learning.

“Phones are programmed to get a person’s attention, and in turn, kids are programmed by their phones. So who can focus on reading a difficult text when checking your Insta feed is way more fun?” Reed said. While the addictive nature of cell phone usage grows, the ability to escape phones and media whittles away. Having a constant connection to media and communication can be a blessing and a curse.

“I think it has actually increased student anxiety about social interaction, grades, and popularity, because nothing stops at 2:30. It goes on till the phone is put away, and for many kids, it never is put away,” Reed said. The never-ending cycle of social media seems to remain constant throughout every classroom.

Another one of our English teachers, Jeff Rogers, offered up his insight on the issue as well.

“My wife has her phone on her desk at work. She has the freedom to respond to a text message and then put it back down. The difference is she has the discipline to put it back down. Students generally don’t,” Rogers said. While little is known about how social media is actively affecting our ability to consume information, Rogers makes an interesting point about how continuous social media is.

“In the 21st century, [stopping cues] are largely gone from society. Instagram, Twitter, and the Internet are bottomless. You can just keep going forever and ever,” Rogers said.

The addictive nature of social media keeps students scrolling and makes focusing on other things much more difficult. As students living in a growing age of technology, it can be difficult to find a way to break away from the pull of social media. Students today are lucky enough to have teachers who are willing to push back against the growing issue.

“I don’t care if something I teach ends up on Parkway’s Facebook page. I care that my students learn the things I want them to learn and can apply them on their own,” Rogers said.