Smartphones: Not the only distraction: St. Paul Harding counselor looks for link between Internet addiction and academic success

“What I want to do is to find a way to help students stay on track to graduate and to get them motivated.” —Marianna Sullivan, St. Paul Harding counselor

Marianna Sullivan noticed a problem.

A counselor at St. Paul Harding High School, Sullivan saw last year that some seniors were not graduating at the last minute due to a lack of credits, she said.

“I thought this was very strange, so I wanted to try to figure out, what’s the common denominator?” Sullivan said. “Why is it that all of these really wonderful and smart students suddenly didn’t graduate because of one credit or one course?”

She wondered if social media and smartphones were part of the problem. She had heard from teachers that smartphones and other technology could be a distraction in class, she said. 

As part of a districtwide project, Sullivan gave nearly 100 St. Paul Harding students surveys on Internet addiction and found no clear link between students’ Internet addiction scores and their academic success. The study is still ongoing.

“My whole objective is to be able to help students be successful and graduate on time,” Sullivan said. “But now with the research [I’ve done], I don’t know for sure if it’s specifically social media.”

The 2016 four-year graduation rate at St. Paul Harding High School – the most recent data available online – was 80.3 percent, according to district data. The four-year graduation rate for the St. Paul district was nearly 76 percent in 2015-2016 and nearly 77 percent in 2016-2017. In 2017, nearly 83 percent of all Minnesota students graduated on time, a record, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Social media plays a major role in the lives of high school students. Eight out of 10 high school students own a smartphone, and the percentage of these students bringing their smartphone out in class has increased from 44 percent to 53 percent, according to a 2015 article from TheJournal.com. According to a 2017 International Business Times article, people spent an average of about five hours per day on their phones.

Sullivan wanted to understand the mental and emotional growth of students who use technologies such as smartphones and social media such as Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, she said.

To gather up the data, she gave senior students a survey. The survey has a list of statements that center on Internet addiction. For each statement, students rank 1-5 how it applies to them. 

The Internet addiction survey was created by Dr. David Walsh, an award-winning psychologist and author. Sullivan modified the survey for students.

Sullivan surveyed 93 senior students in three different classes: English 12, Recovery English, and College in the Schools Algebra. Her hypothesis was that the higher a student scored on the Internet addiction survey, the more absences and the lower that student’s GPA and class rank would be. 

But she found out that wasn’t always the case. There was no clear correlation between Internet addiction and a student’s absences, GPA and class rank, she said. Some students had low scores on the survey and also had low GPAs and attendance, while some students had high scores on the survey as well as high GPAs and attendance. 

Other factors affecting students’ academic success could be jobs outside of school and responsibilities at home, according to Sullivan.

“I was surprised that students didn’t see [the impact of social media and technology] as more of an issue,” she said. “I was not surprised when they all said they have jobs, and they have these other responsibilities, because I think that’s very hard to manage.”

Craig Jones, a senior at Harding, owns a phone. And just like other students, he uses it to go on social media. It’s a big part of his life, he said, and it helps him stay informed.

“[Technology] does not distract me from learning,” Jones said. “I know when to put my phone down. I feel like if anything it helps me, because I can stay connected.”

He added: “I’ve got nothing to stop me from graduating. I do have [problems], but I don’t let it affect me. I feel like you need to get school done first.”

Pachia Lor, another Harding student, also uses technology to access social media and online resources for her education, she said.

“I think technology has pretty much helped us move forward in life, but also sets us back,” Lor said, “because so many of us are so focused on our screens [more] than what’s going on around the world, so I think that’s also an issue.”

Sullivan’s project is ongoing as of March. She plans to find new methods to gather data that can give her insights to help students graduate.

“What I want to do,” she said, “is to find a way to help students stay on track to graduate and to get them motivated.”

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