Why Educators Should be Good Digital Role Models

Teachers can be quick to judge students’ relentless use of screens, and it’s easy to assume the problem starts at home, but have educators considered what sort of digital role model they are being?

Articles berating kids and teens for their seemingly addicted use of digital technology are constantly flooding our news feeds. There’s a degree of irony in that; for how many of us are still reading actual newspapers on a daily basis compared to getting our news from a screen?

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But digital technologies are here to stay, they are an integral and vital part of our children’s lives, and trying to convince ourselves otherwise is an exercise in futility.

Dr Kristy Goodwin is a digital health, learning and productivity expert, engaged by the nation’s top organisations to help promote and improve the digital well-being and performance of employees. As a former teacher and university lecturer, she also delivers professional development seminars to educators across Australia. She has recently released Dear Digital, We Need to Talk: A guilt-free guide to taming your tech habits and thriving in a digital world.

“I wrote this book because for so long parents and teachers have been wagging their fingers at kids and teens declaring they’re ‘addicted’ to their devices and have unhealthy digital dependencies,” Dr Goodwin explains. “But adults have completely overlooked their unhealthy digital habits. I wrote this book because whether we love it or loathe it, technology is here to stay so we need to find healthy and helpful ways to use it.”

Understanding the biology of technology

The first step to keeping healthy, says Dr Goodwin, is understanding the effect of using digital technologies on our brain and biology.

“We’ve been using digital devices in ways that are completely incongruent with our human operating system (hOS), which is our neurobiology. Our neurobiology dictates how our brains and bodies are designed to work in an optimal way. However, our tech habits and behaviours have disrupted and negatively impacted the way our bodies and brains work.”

“Our brains cannot differentiate between a tiger chasing us and a TikTok notification: both are perceived as a threat and subsequent stressor. Notifications are perceived as a possible threat by the reticular activating system, which is a bundle of nerves that sit in our brainstem that control what incoming information gets from our senses to our brain. Your brain sees the red notification bubble in your inbox declaring that you have 108 unread emails as a stressor.” Dr Kristy Goodwin

Only by understanding the not-so-benign effect on our brains and bodies, can we begin to make educated decisions around how we interact with technology.

“The problem with notifications is that they come to us,” says Dr Goodwin. “This tricks our brains into thinking that they’re urgent and important, because our brains are biologically wired to perceive external and unsolicited sounds, colours and movements as possible threats. This creates a Pavlovian response; we tell ourselves, ‘This might be an exciting/important/good one’, and so we want to check it straight away. This results in a hit of dopamine, which overrides the prefrontal cortex that would otherwise encourage us to resist the urge of picking up our phone.”

But it’s not just notifications that are disrupting our brains, she adds. Multitasking can cause the brain to release cortisol and prevents the brain from storing information in the hippocampus, the memory centre. Working for long stretches of time without a break can exhaust the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain for our thinking and problem-solving) which only has a 4–6-hour battery life per day.

Help yourself before you help others

Just like reaching for your own oxygen mask before helping the child next to you, it’s vital you take care of your own digital habits before trying to tame others. We can’t help our students without helping ourselves. But how is this possible, when so many of us depend on screens as an essential part of our work lives?

Dr Goodwin says “How much time we spend on our devices shouldn’t be the only metric to determine our digital wellbeing. We need to be having much more nuanced conversations about what constitutes healthy and sustainable digital habits.”

Learning to control notifications rather than letting them control you is the basis of being a good digital role model. “The basics work if you work the basics”, says Dr Goodwin. “One of the easiest things that we can do to stop digital distractions from diverting our attention is to activate ‘Do Not Disturb’ (DND) mode which, depending on your device, can sometimes be called ‘Focus’ mode. Rather than having digital intruders trickle in throughout the day, you can now nominate what time/s of the day you’d like to receive specific notifications. Referred to as ‘bundling’, ‘batching’ or ‘grouped notifications’, this capability allows you to take back control of when notifications come to you.”

Other suggestions for establishing a better relationship with your devices include:

  • Establishing a digital curfew, ideally switching off devices at least 60 minutes before sleep stop the blue light from adversely impacting our sleep.
  • Replacing your tech temptation with other visual clues, such as a book on your side table rather than your phone, or your sneakers where the remote usually sits.
  • Putting laptops and phones in another room, out of sight, after hours.
  • Not having your phone next to you when you are working.

What can schools do to help and protect teachers?

It’s fine to understand how our digital dependencies are affecting us, and make the decision to turn off Facebook and TikTok notifications, but what happens when the notifications are coming from our employers, colleagues and students?

“Schools need to establish their digital guardrails, as distinct from IT policies. These are the digital norms, practices and principles that underpin how devices are used by teachers, students and parents. These guardrails provide clarity around a school’s digital expectations (or as I colloquially refer to them as ‘tech-spectations).” Dr Kristy Goodwin

Teachers should be involved in establishing their school’s tech-spectations. Dr Goodwin says this means agreeing how quickly teachers and leaders are expected to reply to Teams chats and emails. How ‘after-hours’ emails are responded to (reply and send, or reply and schedule)? Will there be a communication escalation plan so teachers feel like they can psychologically switch off from work, knowing that if there’s an urgent matter, there’s only one mode of communication through which they’ll be reached?

This all boils down to a worker’s right to disconnect. If teachers are focussing on their students during the school day, that only leaves out-of-hours to schedule meetings, plan lessons, communicate with co-teachers and respond to parent queries. “If schools aren’t on the front foot and establishing these guardrails, then we could possibly see legislation around employee rights as we’ve already seen by the ‘Right to Disconnect’ enterprise agreement put forward by the Queensland Teachers Union in 2022,” says Dr Goodwin.

How can teachers be better digital role models?

“If our students see teachers and their parents constantly tethered to technology, then they will often emulate their behaviour.” Dr Kristy Goodwin

 There are some simple things educators can do during the school day to role model good digital behaviours – that is, if your school doesn’t already require teachers to keep their phone out of sight during school hours.

Dr Goodwin says: “Subtle behaviours like not using your phone when a student is speaking to you, or whilst on playground duty (even if it’s for work purposes, students don’t know this and can sometimes falsely assume teachers and leaders are using devices for recreational reasons). Avoid messaging or replying to students late at night as this can encourage and condone after-hours messaging and become a vicious cycle.”

Only by modelling the best behaviours can we hope to see changes in the next generation, who are growing up with a smartphone in their hand and have never known a time when being disconnected was the norm. Understanding the effect digital technologies are having on us physically as well as socially, and having that conversation with students, is a great place to start.

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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