Why texting your children at school could sabotage their learning

Parents texting their children who are in school aren’t just staying in touch — they’re sabotaging their children’s learning and development, according to doctors.

Although most schools allow a student to carry a cellphone for an emergency, and some teachers require students to place their phones in a box when entering a classroom, in many cases students are hearing or feeling the buzzing vibration of notifications, while they should be focused on what’s being taught.

“Anybody under the age of 26 does not have a fully-formed frontal lobe, which is kind of what helps to separate what’s important from what’s not,” said pediatrician John Farrell, from his office in South Riding, Virginia. “Any distraction can really separate them from what they should be paying attention to.”

Farrell said children, and especially their parents, are still feeling the effects of the COVID pandemic.

“I think, as a society, we are still recovering. I think there’s still that underlying level of anxiety, so there is certainly something to staying connected,” said Farrell. “Kids texting their parents may be different than their parents texting the kids.”

Farrell said constant texting between parent and child while the student is in school robs the child of an important aspect of development.

“Teaching them, through trial and error, is kind of what both a school and parents are trying to do,” said Farrell. “Ultimately, we’re all striving for independent children, who kind of think and make decisions on their own.”

Some children either feel the need, or are told to immediately report class grades that they receive to their parents.

Farrell said he hopes parents communicate that that type of information can wait: “I hope they show their kid this isn’t the most important thing, and ask more about how their day went and how their social interactions are, in addition to their grades, and success academically.”

Much of the important learning has nothing to do with subject matter being taught, says Farrell. “A lot of it is through face-to-face contact with their peers, which every time they’re on their phone, that is minimized.”

Parents’ anxiety fuels texts to students, adds ‘extra burden’

Psychologist Judith Danovitch, professor of psychological and brain sciences at University of Louisville, empathizes with parents who feel the need to be in constant touch with their child.

“I’m a parent of an eighth grader myself, so I’m very familiar with this phenomenon, and I understand why parents might want to text their kids in school,” said Danovitch.

However, sending the text makes learning more difficult.

“Particularly for kids, whose executive function and inhibition skills are still developing,” said Danovitch. “It’s like you’re adding another extra burden on top of that.”

Danovitch said humans are not good multi-taskers.

“Receiving that text message takes your attention away from what the teacher is saying, away from a math problem that you might be working on,” said Danovitch. “And getting back to it has a cognitive cost — it makes it harder to understand, to comprehend, to figure out the solution to the problem.”

The distraction has consequences, even if the text message isn’t read — the buzz, beep or vibration from the notification derails the child’s learning.

“You’re thinking, ‘Whoa, what’s the text message going to say?'” said Danovitch. “You’re not thinking about what was Shakespeare trying to say in this passage.”

Danovitch said parents feeling the urgency to text their child at school is typically fueled by the parent’s anxiety.

“We, as parents, should strive to model for children (how to) manage anxiety,” said Danovitch. “Really making thoughtful choices about how to act on it.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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