Internet use – curse or cure for school engagement?

Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Examining how the ever-present internet affects the school engagement and mental health of teenagers, recent research in Finland found that there are two sides to the coin.

Today’s teenagers are often referred to as “digital natives” because they are the first generation to have grown up in a world of ubiquitous mobile devices and social media. They have access to digital technologies day and night, which allows them to be in constant contact with their peers and to engage in such social activities as playing games, creating media and sharing knowledge. Today digital activities are an essential part of social interaction. Unfortunately, if used to excess they can sometimes lead to compulsive and addictive behaviors, affecting both general and school-related mental health. The socio-digital participation of adolescents can thus have both a positive and a negative side.

“There appears to be a widening gap between adolescents’ use of socio-digital technologies and the practices of their schools.”

In Finland, we have extensively studied school engagement and school burnout among digital natives. Our culture values education and academic achievement, and Finnish students are routinely found at the top of the rankings of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) for academic performance. However, recent PISA results showed that Finland ranked 60th of 65 countries with respect to students’ happiness at school. Although Finnish schools are relatively well equipped with information and communication technologies, such technologies are not widely used in the classroom. As a result, students who spend much of their time outside of school using digital technologies may feel bored and even alienated at school.

There appears to be a widening gap between adolescents’ use of socio-digital technologies and the practices of their schools. Me and the “Mind the Gap” team of researchers were curious to find out whether disengagement and cynical attitudes toward school on the part of digital natives in Finland were related to schools’ use, or non-use, of technology. Based on data from a large representative sample of elementary school students in Helsinki, we examined digital natives’ school engagement and burnout profiles and how these were related to their use of socio-digital technologies at school.

Cynical students and their digital use: two sides of the coin

We identified five profiles of school engagement and school burnout (i.e., exhaustion, cynicism, feelings of inadequacy) among elementary school children at age 12. Our analysis identified five groups:

  1. Engaged (50%): This was the most common category.
  2. Stressed (5%): These students felt exhausted and inadequate.
  3. Emerging Cynicism (bored group) (25%): Students in this group had somewhat elevated feelings of cynicism.
  4. Moderate in cynicism (15%): The cynicism of these students was directed particularly toward studying and school.
  5. High in cynicism (burnout group) (5%): This group felt exhausted and inadequate and showed multiple signs of burnout

“One way to promote the engagement of cynical students might be to allow them to make greater use of socio-digital technologies at school.”

These results showed that almost half (45%) of the elementary students felt some degree of cynicism towards school. These students reported that they had high competence in digital technology. In addition they would be more engaged if their schools used more socio-digital technologies. This, then, is the positive side of internet use: One way to promote the engagement of cynical students might be to allow them to make greater use of socio-digital technologies at school.

Excessive internet use may be linked to school burnout

In a second study we examined excessive internet use and school burnout among middle school and high school groups. Excessive internet use is characterized by a loss of control over the behavior, internal and interpersonal conflict, preoccupation with the internet, use of the internet to modify mood, and withdrawal symptoms.

We found reciprocal paths between school burnout and excessive internet use. School burnout predicted later excessive internet use; and conversely, excessive internet use predicted later school burnout. We also found that school burnout predicted depressive symptoms later on. Girls typically suffered more than boys from depressive symptoms and, in late adolescence, from school burnout. Boys were more likely to suffer from excessive internet use. It is therefore clear that excessive internet use among adolescents can be a cause of school burnout, which can later lead to depressive symptoms. This, then, is the negative side of internet use among children.

Our research reveals increased concern about well-being at school and potential problems associated with students’ use of socio-digital technologies, i.e., mobile devices, computers, social media, and the internet. While the use of these technologies may promote participation in creative social activities, it may also lead to compulsive and addictive behavioral patterns, exacerbating both general and school-related mental health problems.

On the other hand, integrating socio-digital technologies into the schools might alleviate the cynical attitude some students have towards school and encourage them to become more engaged.

Salmela-Aro, K., Muotka, J., Hakkarainen, K., Alho, K. & Lonka, K. (in press). School Burnout and Engagement Profiles among Digital Natives in Finland: A Person-oriented Approach. European Journal of Developmental Psychology

Salmela-Aro, K., Upadyaya, K., Hakkarainen, K., Lonka, K. & Alho, K. (in press). The Dark
Side of Internet Use: Two Longitudinal Studies of Excessive Internet Use, Depressive Symptoms, School Burnout and Engagement Among Finnish Early and Late Adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence

Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Hietajärvi, L., Salo, E., Carlson, S., Salonen, O., Lonka, K., Hakkarainen, K., Salmela-Aro, K. & Alho, K. (2016). Media multitasking is associated with distractibility and increased prefrontal activity in adolescents and young adults. NeuroImage, 134, 113–121.

Salmela-Aro, K. (in press). Dark and bright sides of thriving – school burnout and engagement in the Finnish context. European Journal of Developmental Psychology.