Digital Technology and the Effect on Catlin Gabel Students

By Nico Hamacher

Catlin Gabel School, Catlin Speak

It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning and a sophomore girl is sitting in English class. In front of her sits a laptop computer; behind the screen her teacher discusses the previous night’s reading. She glances back and forth between the two, attempting to balance her focus in class with three ongoing conversations on a messaging app on her computer.

This student is not alone. In a recent CatlinSpeak study nearly 54 percent of students responded that they misuse their computer privileges regularly (multiple times per week) during class. More than half of those students reported misusing their computer privileges multiple times per day.

The survey results point to a larger issue within Catlin Gabel regarding the use of electronics and their effect on students.

As Catlin Gabel has progressed through the technological advancements of the past decade, electronics have taken a more central role in the community. Just this year the school hired an academic technology coordinator, Rob van Nood, to work as a liaison between teachers and new technologies in an effort to ensure that technology use in the classroom is conducive to student learning.

Since 2002, when Catlin Gabel began requiring each student to have a laptop, the welcoming attitude towards technology-based learning has continued to increase. Updating from old-style projectors to $4,000 SmartBoards and from paper syllabi to the online service Haiku, the school has invested heavily in the technological future of its curriculum.

The school’s IT department previously performed studies in 2003, 2008, and 2011 focusing on whether or not the computer program assisted students learning. While the original idea behind the study was that it would be repeated at least every other year, the department does not have any plans to conduct the same study in the foreseeable future.

This March though, the school, led by van Nood hired a company named BrightBytes to survey students and teachers on their technology use and provide suggestions to ensure that educational technology is used in the most effective way.

Though the survey did not collect any data on screen time or whether or not people felt technology was helpful or distracting, it asked the community how often they used the computer to write on, if they had internet at home and other similar questions.

The school plans to continue collecting information and analyzing it with the help of BrightBytes. This will include at least one more survey next year and continued dialogue over how best to use technology in a learning environment.

Two recent CatlinSpeak surveys examined the effects and use of digital devices in the Upper and Middle school community. While no specific data had been collected on screen time prior to this study, there were great differences between Catlin Gabel students and the general American teenage public.

The CatlinSpeak survey found that nearly 85 percent of Upper School students have a smartphone. According to a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 37 percent of American teens have a smartphone.

In a 2009 Kaiser Family Foundation report, the average daily time spent on a computer for minors was one hour and 29 minutes. At Catlin Gabel the average reported time was around four hours for Middle and Upper School students.

The same Kaiser Family Foundation report also found that 29 percent of 8-18 year olds own a laptop, a drastic difference from Catlin Gabel since all students at the school are required to have a laptop.

Though a majority of people interviewed for this article stated that they believe there is a point at which students are using too much technology and Catlin Gabel is likely approaching or at this point, only a select few were able to explain why such a point existed. So are screens really that dangerous and if so, why?

When asked what effects lengthy screen time might have on young students Cindy Murray, Catlin Gabel’s Upper and Middle School learning specialist, provided a clear answer.

“Kids who are with screens at a younger age have a higher chance of having ADD,” she explains. She also notes how students who cut themselves off from real-world connections through video games: “during that adolescent period, they’re not developing social relationships – they’re not socializing.”

Research backs up Murray’s points. A 2010 American Association of Pediatrics report published in the journal Pediatrics found that elementary and college-age students who spent more than two hours per day on a screened device were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have attention problems like ADHD and ADD than students who spent under two hours per day.

In addition, the American Pediatrics Association (APA) has released a set of recommendations for screen time. It states that teens should spend “no more than two hours per day” on entertainment media like phones, televisions, and computers.

The APA bases this recommendation on multiple studies which have shown that “excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”

While Catlin Gabel has taken steps to combat misuse of electronics, there is scarce evidence it has made students either aware of possible health implications associated with overuse of digital devices or cut down on their own use.

Though Catlin Gabel’s Information Technology Use Policy for Upper School Students lists online gaming under its list of unacceptable uses for computers at school and states that “inappropriate use may result in restriction or cancellation of the user’s Account and Internet access,” little has been done to enforce this. According to administrators and the IT department no user has ever had their account restricted or shut-down.

In an interview with Dan Griffiths, head of the Upper School, said that the school became seriously concerned about one student’s electronic habits in the past and worked with the students parents on the issue. While the administration does work fairly often with parents and teachers to help students better manage their time, he could not think of any serious incidents which resulted in discipline.

Griffiths recognizes that the school has done little to actively combat the misuse of electronics at school but pointed out that “saying ‘don’t do this’ never works with teenagers.”

Instead, he says the school aims to “provide kids with good information to help them make good choices” regarding their use of screen devices like phones, computers, and televisions.

For now the school continues to champion the use of electronics at school in an effort to enhance students’ learning. Everybody spoken with for this article agreed, digital devices can seriously assist learning, but the extent of the distraction and health hazards they create remains to be explored.

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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