Have you ever been sitting in a meeting and felt your phone vibrate, take it out and discover that, in fact, it hadn’t actually vibrated?

Yeah. Me too.

There’s a name for it. Researchers are calling it “phantom vibration syndrome,” the sensation and false belief that you hear your phone ringing or feel it vibrating, when in fact the phone is not. And it’s not necessarily a good thing.

It means you’re hooked. It means your brain has been re-wired based on your use of technology. You have been “dragged to (technology) by the potential of short term rewards. Every ping can be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the call.”

According to two recent Chinese studies, excessive technology and internet use result in changes in areas of the brain charged with attention, control, and executive function. These “structural abnormalities in gray matter” mean a 10-20 percent shrinkage of those parts of the brain. These changes are eerily similar to changes observed in the brains of drug addicts and alcoholics. People can’t focus, can’t pay attention, can’t think critically.

Research published within the last month by Missouri State University documents the high levels of depression among heavy internet users. One of the study’s subjects maintains four avatars, keeping each virtual world open on his computer, along with his school work, email, and favorite videogames. He told researchers:

My real life is just another window and it’s usually not my best one.

But this goes beyond just issues of personal use. As educators, we need to be asking some serious questions about the current research concerning technology’s impact on attention, deep thinking, reflection, and concentration.

And I’m part of the problem. I mean, just look at the title and tagline of this website. The whole point of History Tech is to talk about ways to integrate technology into the teaching of history and social studies.

I’ve been pushing the use of technology in schools for years. Now? I’ll admit it. I’ve got concerns.

Not concerns about the appropriate use of technology in schools. I truly believe that a healthy balance of technology can improve and encourage high levels of learning. What I’m becoming more concerned about is the research documenting what can happen when the balance is not healthy.

I’ve written about this before here, here, and here.

But a recent Newsweek article highlights a whole boatload of new research. And what it’s telling me is that we need to have more conversations about what appropriate use of technology looks like in schools and, if we’re not careful, we may be adding to the problem that many of our students have with technology overdose.

I push the idea of mobile devices such as iPads as learning tools but I also push the idea that schools should not be buying them (or any other sort of technology) if they’re not really sure how the devices are going to be used. I had a recent conversation with a school administrator who was planning to purchase a large number of interactive white boards simply because

everyone else has them.

If the only reason you plan to use technology is because “everyone else is doing it,” we’re part of the problem. We need to be clear about how, when, and how much technology will be used in our buildings. We need to plan to balance tech use with deep reflection activities and group conversations that happen face-to-face. We need to understand that tech use does not always equal higher levels of thinking.

We need to be aware that technology use is not the silver bullet for improving learning. Appropriate use by trained teachers is.

A few quick suggestions:

  • Be intentional about the use of technology and the web as part of your instruction. Clearly understand what your goal is for its use.
  • Institute tech breaks as part of your normal teaching routine. Allow kids one minute to two minutes to check texts, etc at the start of class and then require devices to be turned off and upside down in front of you. Every 15-20 minutes, allow another one to two minute tech break. Use this method to train your kids that the downside of not checking in every five seconds isn’t as bad as they thought. Eventually you can lengthen the time without breaks to 30 minutes.

A recent article over at Edudemic also seems useful. They’ve put together a handy infographic that provides suggestions and ideas of how to stay focused “in an age of distraction.” The infographic breaks up your day into six categories:

  • Managing your space
  • How to work
  • Create rituals and habits
  • Managing email
  • Take time to reflect and review
  • Help for addicts
  • Take a digital technology detox


It seems like the balance I’m looking for – acknowledging the fact that technology is necessary but understanding that we have to be careful how we use it.

And it can help us start to have more intentional discussions about the appropriate use of technology in our classrooms.