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For much of the past half-century, children, adolescents and young adults in the U.S. have been saying they feel as though their lives are increasingly out of their control. At the same time, rates of anxiety and depression have risen steadily.

What’s the fix? Feeling in control of your own destiny. Let’s call it “agency.”

“Agency may be the one most important factor in human happiness and well-being.”

So write William Stixrud and Ned Johnson in their new book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. Feeling out of control can cause debilitating stress and destroy self-motivation.

Building agency begins with parents, because it has to be cultivated and nurtured in childhood, write Stixrud and Johnson. But many parents find that difficult, since giving kids more control requires parents to give up some of their own.

Instead of trusting kids with choices — small at first, but bigger as adolescence progresses — many parents insist on micromanaging everything from homework to friendships. For these parents, Stixrud and Johnson have a simple message:

Stop. Instead of thinking of yourself as your child’s boss or manager, try consultant.

To discuss the book’s big ideas, I spoke with Bill Stixrud, a neuropsychologist who has spent the past 30 years helping parents and kids navigate life’s challenges. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with a basic definition from the book’s title. What does it mean for a child to be self-driven?

When I used to do psychotherapy, I was struck by how many young adults I saw who said, “I feel like I’ve spent my whole life trying to live up to other people’s expectations. I want to try to figure out what’s really important to me.”

I think that the self-driven child is driven by internal motivation as opposed to other people’s expectations, rewards, insecurity or fear.

To be self-driven, kids need to have a sense of control over their lives and are energetic about directing their lives in the direction they want to go.

Consultants, not managers? I can imagine some parents feeling really uncomfortable giving up that much control over their children’s lives.

When I used to do therapy — I’m going going back 30 years now — I’d see family after family that said, “I hate the time after dinner at our house because it’s World War III.” And I was struck by how many of these meaningless fights would happen over homework — completely unproductive fights, hugely stressful, pitting the kid against his parents.

I just came up with this phrase: “I love you too much to fight with you about your homework.”

What I said to parents is that, if you decide you’re not going to fight about this anymore, you say instead, “How can I help?” You think about yourself as a consultant and acknowledge respectfully that it’s the kid’s homework. You can’t make your child do it. What you can do is offer to help.

You can set up what I call consulting hours between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m., and just say, “I’m not going to fight with you. I just love you too much. I don’t want all this friction. This is your work, and I respect that you can figure this out and I’ll help you.” A family just told me that the temperature went down in their house by 20 degrees.

Letting go can be especially hard for anxious parents, who worry a lot about their kids getting good grades, getting into a good college, landing a good job, etc. How do you help them let go?

All of us have what I call a shared delusion: that the path to becoming successful is extremely narrow and, if you fall off it, you’re sunk. And it just doesn’t take very long to look around and realize how untrue that is.

Research suggests that it doesn’t make that much difference where you go to college in terms of how successful you are financially or professionally or how satisfied you are or how happy you are. The idea that, somehow, getting into the most elite college at any cost is the right focus of a kid’s development is completely wrong. It’s wrong-headed. And many parents with enough support can come to see that and make peace with it. But it’s a big project because so much of the world that we live in gives the opposite message.

Also, we need to make peace with reality. And the reality is, you can’t make a kid do his work. And that means it can’t be the parent’s responsibility to ensure that the kid always does his homework and does it well.

In some ways, it’s also disrespectful to the kid. You know, I start with the assumption that kids have a brain in their head and they want their lives to work. They want to do well. That’s why we want to change the energy, so the energy is coming from the kid seeking help from us rather than us trying to boss the kid, sending the message, “You can’t do this on your own.”

One of my favorite moments in the book is when you reveal how you, as a parent, approached homework and report cards with your kids. What was the message you were trying to convey to them?

When my kids were little, I had just been reading some research that suggested there’s a very low correlation between grades and success in life. And so, when my kids were in elementary school, I said, “I’m happy to look at your report card, but I don’t care that much. I care much more that you work hard to develop yourself, and part of that is developing yourself as a student. But also it means developing yourself as a person. If you want to be an athlete or musician or whatever is important to you, I care much more about that because that’s the stuff — that self-development — that helps you be successful. It’s not the grades.”

When my daughter was in high school, she came to a lecture I gave on the adolescent brain, in which I mentioned this low correlation between grades and success and how research on valedictorians suggests that they don’t do better than other college graduates once they’re in their mid-20s. Driving home, she said, “You know, I liked the lecture, but I don’t really believe that you believe that stuff about the grades.”

I told her, “I absolutely believe it.” In fact, I believed it enough that I offered her a hundred bucks to get a C on her next report card.

I assume she was an A student at the time?

Yeah, she’s now got a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. She’s a brilliant girl and a really good student. But I offered her a hundred dollars for a C, so she could understand and have the experience that, you know, one bad thing or one thing that seems like a disaster is just not that big a deal.

She didn’t take you up on it?

She never did. But I think it helped her to know that there’s many ways people become successful. And I think that message was really helpful to my son, who did not learn easily and needed help to get through school. He was a later bloomer but ultimately got a Ph.D. in psychology and is an incredible person.

I walked this walk with him — in the sense that I never oversaw his homework. If I happened to notice that he hadn’t done a very good job on something, I’d offer some suggestions, and often he’d take me up on it. Other times, he wouldn’t. And I’d say, “This is your education. I’ll help wherever I can.”

On the subject of homework, you say: Inspire but don’t require.

I wrote a couple papers on homework in 1986, and I reviewed what we know about the effects of homework on learning. And I was dumbfounded to learn at that time that there’s virtually no correlation between the amount of time spent on homework and what you learn in elementary school. And that’s partly why I concluded that it doesn’t make sense to fight with kids and have all this stress about something that doesn’t seem to contribute to learning.

Thirty-some years later, it’s still the case that there’s no compelling evidence that homework contributes to learning in elementary school and even in middle school — or in high school beyond two, 2 1/2 hours. It just doesn’t do much.

I think the wisest thing is to try to inspire kids to learn at home. I don’t want kids going home and being on social media or video games all night. I want them to be working on developing themselves, and I want teachers to inspire kids to learn. Tell them, “Here’s what you’re going to get out of this assignment. I think it will help you. Or find a different way to learn this material.” But don’t require homework and grade it because, in my opinion, it confuses the means for the end.

You say the best way to motivate a child for the things you think he should focus on is to let him spend time on the things he wants to focus on. Why?

There’s a scientist by the name of Reed Larson who studies adolescent development with a strong focus on motivation. And he concluded some years ago that the best way to develop a self-motivated, older-adolescent adult is to encourage their participation in their pastimes — in the stuff they love.

The point he’s made is that, if a kid is deeply involved in something that he loves to do, he’s going to create a brain-state that combines high focus, high energy, high effort and low stress. Ideally, at least in our professional lives, that’s where we want to be most of the time. We want to be interested, engaged, active, alert, and focused but not highly stressed.

In my own experience, I was a C+ student in high school, but I spent at least two or three hours a night working on rock ‘n’ roll music. I was in a band and learned to play instruments and learning chord structure and practicing harmony parts. Oftentimes, I’d tell myself, “Well, I’ll go into my music room for half an hour, and then I’ll do some homework.” But commonly, two-and-a-half hours later, I’d come out and have no idea where all the time went.

I feel that I really sculpted a brain that, once I found something professionally that really speaks to me, I could go pedal to the metal.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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If the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov were alive today, what would he say about smartphones? He might not think of them as phones at all, but instead as remarkable tools for understanding how technology can manipulate our brains.

Pavlov’s own findings — from experiments he did more than a century ago, involving food, buzzers and slobbering dogs — offer key insights into why our phones have become almost an extension of our bodies, modern researchers say. The findings also provide clues to how we can break our dependence.

Pavlov originally set off to study canine digestion. But one day, he noticed something peculiar while feeding his dogs. If he played a sound — like a metronome or buzzer — before mealtimes, eventually the sound started to have a special meaning for the animals. It meant food was coming! The dogs actually started drooling when they heard the sound, even if no food was around.

Hearing the buzzer had become pleasurable.

That’s exactly what’s happening with smartphones, says David Greenfield, a psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut.

When we hear a ding or little ditty alerting us to a new text, email or Facebook post, cells in our brains likely release dopamine — one of the chemical transmitters in the brain’s reward circuitry. That dopamine makes us feel pleasure, Greenfield says.

“That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us,” Greenfield says.

Over time, that ping can become more powerful than the reward itself. Research on animals suggests dopamine levels in the brain can be twice as high when you anticipate the reward as when you actually receive it.

In other words, just hearing the notification can be more pleasurable than the text, email or tweet. “Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs,” Greenfield says.

Signs you might need to cut back

The average adult checks their phone 50 to 300 times each day, Greenfield says. And smartphones use psychological tricks that encourage our continued high usage — some of the same tricks slot machines use to hook gamblers.

“For example, every time you look at your phone, you don’t know what you’re going to find — how relevant or desirable a message is going to be,” Greenfield says. “So you keep checking it over and over again because every once in a while, there’s something good there.” (This is called a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. Animal studies suggest it makes dopamine skyrocket in the brain’s reward circuity and is possibly one reason people keep playing slot machines.)

A growing number of doctors and psychologists are concerned about our relationship with the phone. There’s a debate about what to call the problem. Some say “disorder” or “problematic behavior.” Others think over-reliance on a smartphone can become a behavioral addiction, like gambling.

“It’s a spectrum disorder,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, who studies addiction. “There are mild, moderate and extreme forms.” And for many people, there’s no problem at all.

In this way, the phone is kind of like alcohol, Lembke says. Moderate alcohol consumption can be beneficial, for some people.

“You can make an argument that a temperate amount of smartphone or screen use might be good for people,” Lembke says. “So I’m not saying, ‘Everybody get rid of their smartphones because they’re completely addictive,’ But instead, let’s be very thoughtful about how we’re how we’re using these devices, because we can use them in pathological ways.”

Signs you might be experiencing problematic use, Lembke says, include these:

  • Interacting with the device keeps you up late or otherwise interferes with your sleep.
  • It reduces the time you have to be with friends or family.
  • It interferes with your ability to finish work or homework.
  • It causes you to be rude, even subconsciously. “For instance,” Lembke asks, “are you in the middle of having a conversation with someone and just dropping down and scrolling through your phone?” That’s a bad sign.
  • It’s squelching your creativity. “I think that’s really what people don’t realize with their smartphone usage,” Lembke says. “It can really deprive you of a kind of seamless flow of creative thought that generates from your own brain.”

Consider a digital detox one day a week

Tiffany Shlain, a San Francisco Bay Area filmmaker, and her family power down all their devices every Friday evening, for a 24-hour period.

“It’s something we look forward to each week,” Shlain says. She and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a professor in the field of robotics at the University of California, Berkeley, are very tech savvy. But they find they need a break.

“During the week, [we’re] like an emotional pinball machine responding to all the external forces,” Shlain says. The buzzes, beeps, emails, alerts and notifications never end.

Shutting the smartphones off shuts out all those distractions.

“You’re making your time sacred again — reclaiming it,” Shlain says. “You stop all the noise.”

When they started the digital break about nine years ago, which they call “Tech Shabbat,” Saturdays suddenly felt very different. The family’s not religious, she says, but they love the Jewish Sabbath ritual of setting aside a day for rest or restoration.

“The days felt much longer, and we generally feel much more relaxed,” says Goldberg.

Their daughter, Odessa Shlain Goldberg, a ninth-grader, says the unplugging takes some of the pressure off.

“There’s no FOMO — fear of missing out — or seeing what my friends are doing,” Odessa says. “It’s a family day.”

The teen says the perspective she gains from the digital power-down carries over into the rest of the week. For instance, she thinks differently about social media. She realizes the social media feeds often make other people’s lives appear more exciting or glamorous.

“If you’re sitting at home scrolling, you’re not having that glamorous experience,” she says. “So it feels a little discouraging.”

Smartphones can compound teen angst, but there’s a sweet spot

Odessa is definitely not alone in those observations. Social media can amplify the anxieties that come along with adolescence.

A recent study of high school students, published in the journal Emotion, found that too much time spent on digital devices is linked to lower self-esteem and a decrease in well-being. The survey asked teens how much time they spent — outside of schoolwork — on activities such as texting, gaming, searching the internet or using social media.

“We found teens who spend five or more hours a day online are twice as likely to say they’re unhappy,” compared to those who spend less time plugged in, explains the study’s author, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

Twenge’s research suggests digital abstinence is not good either. Teens who have no access to screens or social media may feel shut out, she says.

But there may be a sweet spot. According to the survey data, “the teens who spend a little time — an hour or two hours a day [on their devices] — those are actually the happiest teens,” Twenge says.

At its best, technology connects us to new ideas and people. It makes the world smaller and opens up possibilities.

“The ability to connect with people across the world is one the great benefits,” Odessa believes. She says she’s made some of her friends “purely online.”

“We need to wrestle with it more,” her mother says.

Technology is not going away. Our lives are becoming more wired all the time. But Shlain and Odessa say taking a weekly break helps their whole family find a happy medium in dealing with their phones.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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The excerpt below is from the book “Connected From the Start: Global Learning In the Primary Grades,” by Kathy Cassidy, published by Powerful Learning Press.

By Kathy Cassidy

Some teachers I talk to say they do not have time to connect with other classrooms because they are too busy covering their curriculum. In fact, connecting with others is not an addition to our curriculum. It is not something we do after we have finished our reading and math for the day. It is the way we do our curriculum. From practicing counting by fives or comparing similarities and differences via Skype, to writing for a worldwide audience, to making and sharing videos of social studies concepts on our blogs, we connect and invite the world to learn with us and to help us learn. Although learning from others is a key reason why I continue to connect my classroom online, there are many other reasons as well.

1. Our Students Will Be Part Of a Hyper-Connected World

The world seems to shrink a bit more every day. This has been the pattern for many decades. As this trend continues, the world that my students will be part of in their adult lives will be incredibly connected. Twenty-five years ago, I spent some time living in Thailand. When my husband and I left Canada to move there, we knew that our only connection with our family and friends would be letters and an occasional (and expensive) telephone call. If we were to make that move now, there would be a multitude of ways we could connect with home, both synchronously and asynchronously, anytime we chose. Although having a computer or device with an internet connection in my students’ homes becomes a little more common every year, not every child in my class has this access. Sometimes these children and their parents are able to access the Internet from a relative’s home or from the public library. What is clear is that we are continually moving toward the point at which every family will be connected.

These connections are not restricted to our private lives. Business is also becoming more globally connected. It is possible and perhaps even probable that our students will spend much of their working lives in some kind of virtual conversation with colleagues from around the world. If that is even a possibility, we owe it to them to begin to prepare them for that option. We want to get them ready for the world they will be part of, not the world that we lived in as children, or even the world we live in now.

2. A Global Perspective Increases Empathy

The enthusiasm of my students at the discovery of the volcano near the Voyagers’ school was tempered by the fact that they knew volcanoes could be extremely dangerous. Because of our online connection and conversations, they felt about the students in New Zealand the same way as they did about the students in the classroom next door. They were concerned for their safety, and it was important to them to find out if their friends were in danger in the event of a volcanic eruption. It is easy to brush off dangers or catastrophic events when they do not personally affect your life. Knowing others who may be affected by that danger takes something abstract and makes it personal. You begin to care. My students were relieved to discover that the volcano in New Zealand did not spew lava—only ash—and that the ash had never endangered any of the students at the school in Palmerston North.

From children in places far from where we live, my students have learned that not everyone has the same alphabet, that people speak other languages, that some areas do not have snow in the winter, that children everywhere learn to read and write, that school rules can be different, and that, yes, there are trees in Wisconsin. Without our online connections, these global understandings might not have been gained for many years, if ever.

3. Kids Often Learn Best From Other Kids

Kids can often learn better from a classmate or another child than they can from their teacher. If you are a teacher, I’m sure you’ve seen this in your own classroom. I certainly have.

A student practices reading with a teacher-in-training on Skype. (Kathy Cassidy/Flickr)

I remember one of the moments that this was hammered home to me. One of the objectives in my curriculum at the time was learning the difference between needs and wants. I planned and taught a couple of what I thought were fabulous lessons about what each of these concepts was and the difference between the two. Then, I asked the students to make a Common Craft type of video to show what they had learned. If you are not familiar with Common Craft, they have a series of simple but brilliant videos explaining concepts such as Twitter, social media, RSS and wikis. The camera points at a table and films the narrator’s hands. As he talks, the narrator pulls pieces of paper with simple drawings or words in and out of the camera’s view.

My students’ task was to create a similar video to show what they had learned about the difference between needs and wants. When the videos were completed, it was obvious that despite my brilliant teaching, three of the students still did not understand the difference between these two words. Instead of re-teaching, I took those three students aside and showed them videos created by students who obviously had a clear grasp of the concepts.

It was like the lights went on. After having seen what their peers had created, those three students all clearly understood the differences, and they were able to go on to create a new video showing this learning. You can probably think of similar things that have happened in your own classroom.

Now, imagine those “aha” moments happening through a connection with a child in another place your students have never been and will probably never have a chance to visit. I could have simply told my students that there are volcanoes in New Zealand, or read a book about children who wear uniforms to school, or shown a video about children who live near the ocean. Would my teaching have provoked the same learning? I don’t think so. As we talked with our Kiwi friends below the equator, the children could ask questions and get answers. They could observe the learning of the other children in response to the answers we gave. My students could be part of the lives of people who lived on the other side of the world. This vivid personal connection both inspired their learning and made it more meaningful to them.

4. We Learn about Online Etiquette and Safety

Some people worry that young children should not be online because they cannot be safe. Instead, I worry that young children who are isolated from social technologies will not learn HOW to be safe online. In our increasingly connected world, it is important for even five and six-year-olds to begin to learn what is appropriate when using technology to connect.

Kathy Cassidy with her student. (A student)

While I agree we need to take steps to protect children, I think it is equally important that we begin to teach them how to handle themselves in virtual settings. Having them create digital content and interact in a safe manner is essential learning for a child growing up in the Internet age. Unfortunately, we are not having many conversations about this at the level where decisions are made about education policy and practice.

Almost everyone knows the story of an adult who, because of something that was posted online, was denied a chance at a job, or lost their employment, or was censured in some way. I know of a young man who was denied a chance to compete for a coveted job in tourism because the sponsoring organization found a video of him online using profanity at a professional football game. Incidents such as this are happening more and more often.

The issue of online bullying is also gaining worldwide media attention. Many children and adults do not realize that once something is online, it stays online. You may be able to delete it from your website or Facebook page, but you must assume there will always be a record of what you posted somewhere in cyberspace. As significant as this issue has become in our lives, it will become even more important in the future as our world continues to become more connected.

Even 10 years ago, we could never have predicted how important the Internet and the connections it allows would become. A positive digital footprint is on its way to becoming an essential part of all our lives. Even five and six year olds can begin to understand this concept.

My curriculum asks me to teach the students how to recognize potential safety risks in play areas. To my students, the Internet is a play area. Online safety is just one of the forms of safety that they need to learn to be healthy and secure as they grow.

When my own children were too young to cross the street on their own, I took their hand and crossed with them. As they grew, I let go of their hand and walked beside them. When they were ready, I watched as they crossed the street on their own. Finally, they were ready to do it entirely without me.

When my primary-aged students begin to interact online, I do not set them loose to explore on their own. I figuratively take their hand and we do things together. After much modeling, I let the students do it while I watch. When those habits are firmly established, I watch from afar while they do it without me. I do this to ensure that they interact online in a safe and appropriate way.

5. I Place a High Value on Serendipity

Time and again, our classroom interactions with students far away have resulted in unforeseen learning. When we began connecting with the classroom in New Zealand, I had no idea that they lived near the ocean or that they had a volcano nearby. Those unexpected realities led to serendipitous learning.

Over the years, we have “accidentally” discovered that some schools have no girls, that some people go swimming on Christmas Day and that some schools have no school buses. We’ve learned what it looks like to have a tornado drill in a classroom. Year after year, I have let the students “discover” for themselves that when we chat with students in Australia or New Zealand, it is already the next day there. The learning is much stickier when they suddenly perceive that the kids down under are having summer when we are having winter and that not everyone wears snow clothes for four months of the year.

One day my class received a package in the mail from New Zealand. It contained some wonderful treasures such as kina and paua shells and ash from a “real” volcano. This led to more wonderful questions about why the pumice was so light and how the paua shell got to be blue inside, and why anyone would think to eat the spiky kina shellfish! More serendipity.

These kinds of connections bring something to the classroom that nothing else can. Connecting globally has changed my classroom and my teaching practice in such a profound way that I feel almost claustrophobic thinking about old-style instruction. Maybe you already enjoy this same sense of freedom to connect. If not, let me introduce you to the tools I use to lower our classroom walls and welcome the world in.

Kathy Cassidy is a Grade One teacher for Prairie South Schools in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, and an Apple Distinguished Educator. Since 2005, she has been integrating various technologies into her teaching practice to help “connect” her primary-grades students so they can become global learners. In addition to her widely followed classroom blog, she writes about her professional work at Primary Preoccupation and for the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog.

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Navigating love and relationships can be difficult at any age, but especially so in the angsty teenage years. Budding romances can be fun and exhilarating but also confusing and uncomfortable. In these moments of confusion, teens often turn to friends or the internet for advice. But what if teens were trained with other options? What if lessons in love and romance were taught more explicitly in schools and at home?

It turns out that teens are yearning for these lessons. They’re looking for more guidance from parents on emotional aspects of romantic relationships — everything from “how to develop a mature relationship” to “how to deal with breakups,” according to a survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project.

“Our data is showing a lot of kids do want to have this conversation,” said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who co-authored the study of the 18- to 25-year-olds. He said that teachers and parents should be establishing themselves as experts on mature relationships and, in turn, creating an environment in which teens feel comfortable seeking advice about those experiences.

“There are a huge amount of mistakes and misunderstandings that go on here on a daily basis, and good sex education can really help with that,” he said.

The majority of us have experienced lessons on human anatomy and pregnancy prevention in school, but what Weissbourd is referring to when he says “good sex education” goes beyond the basics.

Health educators like Shafia Zaloom are trying to create a more holistic approach to sex ed by teaching lessons in love and intimacy. She teaches a six-week course at the Urban School of San Francisco that follows the lifespan of a romantic relationship. The curriculum she has developed encompasses human sexuality and personal integrity with specific lessons in topics like sexual orientation, consent, good sex and pleasure.

“I teach it because human relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” she said. “Authentic connection matters and makes a difference. The focus of my work has always been on social justice and equity as well. There’s a lot of work to do with this in the realm of sex education.”

One of Zaloom’s students, a 15-year-old boy, says his favorite part has been learning about the nuance of consent. In one class, students watched and analyzed a sex scene from the movie “Super Bad.” He says that activity opened up his eyes to how media can alter our perception of reality.

“When I watch movies, I usually don’t think in my head if it’s consensual or not, I just go with it, but looking back on it, I’m like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not consensual, I don’t know why he’s doing that,’” he said.You got to be taught those things, you can’t just be influenced by the things you see in the movies, you need to learn about it in real life.”

Zaloom acknowledges that, as an adult, initiating these conversations with teens can be nerve-wracking. Her advice is to: “Pace yourself. Have lots of smaller conversations (vs. the BIG TALK) over time that scaffolds the learning.”

Below are a handful of additional tips from educators and researchers on how to effectively teach about love, consent and emotional intelligence.   

Create a safe space

Matthew Lippman is a high school English teacher at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A few years ago, he began teaching a course called MEMOIR: LOVE.

“The first thing is that you want to really set up a space that is safe and that will be, at times, uncomfortable. Super uncomfortable,” said Lippman. “Trust the kids. They know what they are talking about in big and deep and meaningful ways. I think it is very important to let them, in their own way, guide the conversation. This means that ‘getting out of the way’ is really important.”

Talk about your own romantic relationships

Tackling these conversations with teens can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. For starters, Weissbourd suggests developing go-to language. One way to do this is to talk about your own relationships. Even if they didn’t last forever, there can be value in learning about failed relationships.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin teaching teens about romantic relationships: What was healthy about my relationships? What was unhealthy? If they were troubled in some way, why did they become that way? What attitudes or behaviors would you change if you could? Were there warning signs in your relationship or concerning qualities in your partner that you should have seen or taken more seriously?

“It’s often helpful to discuss these questions with trusted friends or to consult experts. Share with your teens any lessons you’ve learned about the skills, attitudes and sensitivities that it takes to maintain a healthy romantic relationship or any close relationship,” the Harvard study suggests.

Facilitate conversations about ethical decision-making

What do I do if I know my friend is cheating on his girlfriend, who is also my friend? Is infidelity justified under any circumstances? Is it exploitation when a high school senior hooks up with a first-year student? These types of questions can engage teens in lively conversation — and help them formulate their own opinions about how to handle complicated situations. It also helps students gain perspective, especially when they’re dissecting these hypothetical situations with the opposite sex.

One 15-year-old girl who took Zaloom’s class said the course gave her communication tools and helped her establish her own moral compass.

“Knowing my priorities and values before going into situations taught me how to interact with people,” she said. “Not just a value for relationships … life in general. It’s really applicable to everyday life and how I can go through life with an open mind and always willing to hear from other people.”

Create empathy through perspective exercises

When teaching about consent, building empathy is imperative, says Zaloom.

“The social science shows through research that the only one common piece people who perpetrate assault share is a lack of empathy,” said Zaloom. “Empathy is the foundation of one’s capacity to have healthy and caring relationships, to truly respect someone. Needless to say, we talk a ton about empathy.”

One way to do this is to have kids interact, share experiences and listen to each other. For instance, one lesson teaches kids how to ask someone out. Students explain to each other what they’re attracted to and how various scenarios make them feel.

“It’s really great advice, actually,” said Zaloom’s 15-year-old male student. “It was really interesting hearing about the other gender. … I didn’t understand how important confidence is to a girl — being confident but not being too dominant and not being a jerk.”

Teach about different kinds of love  

Infatuation. Romance. Jealousy. Unconditional love. There is nuance in love, and educators say this is important for kids to understand, especially when they’re feeling these emotions for the first time. In Lippman’s course on love, he said students “read and talked and wrote about love in all of its forms and iterations” because “it is one of these topics that lives in everything.”

This is when talking about your own experiences with love and dating can be beneficial. Weissbourd puts it like this: “When I said I love my wife on our wedding day, that was something different than when I say I love her now. The love I have for her now is deeper and more dazzling but it’s quieter. it’s not intoxication in the same way. We don’t talk about these different types of love.”

Use pop culture and other forms of media as models

When looking to incorporate forms of media into your own class, Lippman says, “I find that music is a great literature and one that really speaks to the kids. The most important thing is to be relevant.”

Here’s a list of his favorite teaching materials, including books, poetry and music:  

  • Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet
  • Matthew Dickman and Tracy K. Smith’s poetry
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.
  • W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe
  • Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”  
  • U2’s “One”

Ultimately, says Zaloom, remember that the majority of sex education is about values. “Many parents are already teaching about values. Now the challenge is to guide kids to understand what those values sound, look and feel like within the context of sexuality.”

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Parents today struggle to set screen time guidelines.

One big reason is a lack of role models. Grandma doesn’t have any tried-and-true sayings about iPad time. This stuff is just too new.

But many experts on kids and media are also parents themselves. So when I was interviewing dozens of them for my book The Art of Screen Time, I asked them how they made screen time rules at home.

None of them held themselves up as paragons, but it was interesting to see how the priorities they focused on in their own research corresponded with the priorities they set at home.

House Rules for the research pediatrician:

Dr. Jenny Radesky is the lead author of the most recent revision of the guidelines on media and children from the American Academy of Pediatrics. She is also the mother of two young boys, and as she says, “We’re not a tech-averse household.”

She and her husband both grew up watching “tons of TV” and playing video games. “We have a big flatscreen TV,” Radesky says. “I have a smartphone.”

In fact, she says, as a doctor she may be more prone to distraction than he is: “My husband’s really good. His stuff is always just on the kitchen counter and he hardly checks it unless it rings. But if I’m on call I have my pager on. If something is an emergency that’s how I can be found.”

For the kids, since they started school, the rule is “no media on weekdays.” They unplug at family dinner and before bed. They have a family movie night on Fridays, which is an example of the principle Radesky touts in her research, of “joint media engagement,” or simply sharing screen time.

On weekends, they allow the kids cartoons, apps and games like Minecraft. But more than just limiting time, says Radesky, “I try to help my older son be aware of the way he reacts to video games or how to interpret information we find online.” For example, she tries to explain how he is being manipulated by games that ask him to make purchases while playing.

House Rules for the sleep researcher:

Lauren Hale is a sleep researcher at Stony Brook University in New York. She sums up her findings from over a decade of research: “As kids and adults watch or use screens, with light shining in their eyes and close to their face, bedtime gets delayed. It takes longer to fall asleep, sleep quality is reduced and total sleep time is decreased.”

Hale is also the mother of two young children. She strictly enforces these rules: No screens in the hour before bed, no screens in the bedroom and no screens as part of the bedtime routine. It seems to be sinking in. When he was 4 years old, her son told his grandmother: “You don’t want to look at a screen before bed because it tells your brain to stay awake.”

House Rules for the anti-obesity doctor:

Tom Warshawski, a pediatrician in Canada and founder of the Childhood Obesity Foundation there, has been involved in education efforts to get parents to cut back on media time.

His materials promote the formula 5- 2- 1- 0. That means five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, no more than two hours of screens, one hour of physical activity, and no sugary beverages.

He and his wife, also a doctor, split their pediatrics practice when their son and daughter were young so that one of them could always be home.

“We limited TV to an hour on weekdays after all other homework was done,” he says. “We said categorically no video games — my daughter didn’t care, but my son thought it was extremely oppressive and unfair. Then he resigned himself. Ultimately, both of them have thanked us.”

House Rules for the media and violence researcher:

Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University, has two nearly grown daughters. He says when they were younger, he “pretty much followed AAP guidelines: one hour a day in elementary school, two hours as they got older. But I’m much more strict on content than I am on time.”

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t rely on ratings. Instead, he would watch something himself before allowing his girls to see it. They were big fans of the Harry Potter books; they would wait for each movie to come out on video and then watch it in short bits, fast-forwarding through the scary parts.

But, he says, being the strict dad did once backfire in a funny way. He’s a huge Star Wars fan. “I was 13 when the original movie came out. I waited 10 years, ever since she was born, to share this pivotal, important movie with my older daughter.”

Based on his description, though, she wasn’t having it.

“She says, ‘No. All they do is fight all the way through it.’

” ‘Oh, please?’

” ‘No, Dad.’ ”

Reluctantly, Gentile saw her point: “She had learned the lesson — if the movie is just about people fighting, it’s not going to make her feel happy. She’s not going to enjoy it.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Walking onto a High Tech High campus is like entering a workshop. Our tour guide, sophomore Caroline Egler, pointed out classrooms that supposedly housed physics or humanities or biology, but most students weren’t in those rooms. They were in the hallways working on projects, huddled around computers together, or even working at desks elevated 8 feet above the ground so they towered over the floor. Students seem to be working with purpose, even if it’s not immediately obvious what they’re doing. The scene is chaotic, but not out of control.

It’s not always like this, Egler assured us, a group of education journalists visiting as part of the Education Writers Association’s Rethinking the American High School seminar. Students at this campus of the San Diego-based charter network seemed more frantic than usual because they were rushing to finish projects they’d been working on all semester, she said. They’d be exhibiting their work to real-world audiences at the end of the week.

‘All of this is stuff students are researching and learning about, but it’s all integrated into this project, rather than being this cold, removed, isolated content that we study for a while and then we move on to the next thing.’Russell Walker, Humanities teacher at High Tech High

Each student had to develop a physical product to represent their learning over the semester; they planned to exhibit their work at the Mexican border in coordination with Mexican students they had been working with over Skype since the class began.

Egler explained that she was making a podcast — complete with original music composed by a classmate — about differing views on President Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Other students in her class were exploring topics like drug trafficking and sexual harassment; the only requirement was that the project relate to the border. It was a shared project between Spanish and humanities classes.

These kinds of community-grounded events are part of what High Tech High calls real-world work. The learning and its products are displayed not just to teachers, students or even parents, but to a larger community of experts. That gives school assignments more relevance — the work actually matters to the world.

The other thing visitors immediately notice about the school is the incredible work hanging from ceilings, lining the walls, and built into the hallways. Photographs, a bridge to nowhere, self-portraits, full-size boats, weather balloons, robots — beautiful work is celebrated at the school and its constant presence reminds students of the high expectations their teachers set for them.

The High Tech High network mostly operates on the California per-pupil funding formula, but it chooses to allocate its money very differently from many other school systems. High Tech High School doesn’t have a football team, a library or textbooks, all pricey areas where the school saves some money. It also offers few class choices to students; for the most part, students take classes that satisfy the University of California’s A-G requirements. And many teachers have dual credentials, allowing them to teach multiple subjects or combine subjects.

Boat-making is a favorite High Tech High project. (Katrina Schwartz)

But what seems like a lack of choice in classes isn’t as limiting as one might think. The charter network’s schools are built around four essential design principles: equity, personalization, authentic work and collaborative design. While those guiding principles are at the heart of every class, there’s a lot of variety in every other way. And students are encouraged to pursue ideas they’re passionate about, which allows for some of the choice they might otherwise lack.

For example, Aaron Price is in the same humanities-Spanish class as Caroline Egler. He built a data logger that he attached to a weather balloon and used it to measure CO2 levels at the border. He was part of a team investigating shared environmental concerns in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Price’s physical work product was more technical, but he also wrote and published a research paper, as well as a website with his findings. It’s almost like Egler with her political podcast and Price with his weather balloon are in two different classes. That’s what personalization looks like at High Tech High schools, and it’s why students don’t mind that the course catalog is limited.

The charter network accepts students through a lottery that randomly takes a certain number of students from every ZIP code in San Diego. Since the city, like many others, has many neighborhoods that are racially and ethnically isolated, this ensures the student body reflects San Diego’s population.

SS learn about blood types, heredity and codominance of traits by typing themselves- one of the most engaging labs of the year! @hightechhigh #labscience #shareyourlearning #deeperlearning #biology pic.twitter.com/bVGGuHCC2F

— KalleApplegatePalmer (@palmer_kalle) January 25, 2018

Personalization is achieved in part by keeping class sizes small; teachers have the opportunity to get to know students and their passions well. They can adapt projects to students’ interests, and push individuals to do their best work.

“It is not students all sitting in front of computers doing a self-paced math program,” said Larry Rosenstock, founding principal and CEO of High Tech High. “It is not finding the right pace or right technique to get this inert content to each student.”

Instead, personalization at High Tech High is a partnership between the teacher and student to find an authentic project that genuinely motivates students to produce meaningful work. And, because teachers’ schedules are arranged so they see fewer students at a time, they can push the young people they work with to reach individual goals.

“It means you and the student are going to work together to design something that’s going to be academically relevant to what you’re trying to teach them, but also personally meaningful to the student,” said Russell Walker, an 11th-grade history teacher. He designs the broad strokes of the project, but students take it in many different directions.

“I would say it is criminal negligence if you’re not doing that in project-based learning,” Walker said. “Because if you’re saying, ‘Here’s this project and you’re all going to make the same thing,’ that’s not really very interesting. They’ll just copy what you did.”

Involving S voice into the development of a project provides expert insight, valuable information, and creative solutions! We invite Ss into our work to give them voice and standing…How do you engage Ss in the process of planning and learning? pic.twitter.com/WmnPaE5eg7

— Edrick Macalaguim (@EdrickMac) January 3, 2018

During the fall semester, Walker collaborated with a biology teacher on a semester-long project about space colonization. Students were tasked with thinking through what they’d need to sustain life off earth, and along the way they learned about DNA, cell replication, physiological systems in the body, ecosystems and more.

“It’s all the stuff you would normally do in a biology class,” Walker said, “but it’s applied in a way that students are interested in learning and applying it.”

For the history side of things, students had to decide what kind of society they would build on their space colony. To do that, they read political theory and philosophers from the Enlightenment. Students discussed the mistakes of colonialism, and covered a broad swath of history as they worked to create something better on their new planet.

“All of this is stuff students are researching and learning about, but it’s all integrated into this project, rather than being this cold, removed, isolated content that we study for a while and then we move on to the next thing,” Walker said.

Walker used to teach Advanced Placement environmental science at a high school in Los Angeles, where he taught 150 students each day and was expected to help as many as possible pass the AP test. He said the experience left him feeling uninspired as a professional and drained of his creativity because he spent hours handling the minutiae of lesson planning and grading.

Now, Walker says he works with 48 students (although some High Tech High teachers see between 50-100 students in core classes). His time as an educator is spent researching to prepare a great project, experimenting with the tasks for students, meeting one-on-one with students, providing critique and feedback on their work, and generally engaging with students around ideas.

@hightechhigh beautiful school, ethos and people! John, thanks again for the tour! pic.twitter.com/xLbGCwDIdd

— Nicholas Pattison (@CubedSTEM) January 12, 2018

“As a teacher, it’s way more fun and interesting to work here,” Walker said. “And I think a lot of teachers who are burned out or losing hope on the way things are running could benefit from shifting to [project-based learning].”

Another High Tech High teacher, Mike Strong, agreed that one of his favorite things about the school is the autonomy it offers him. Teachers are treated as professionals and are allowed to be creative, he said. That’s a tall order, and can be exhausting, but it’s much more exciting. And when teachers are given autonomy, they tend to transfer it to students as well.

Egler said her teachers trust her — something she’s come to expect.

“Teachers trust that if they put [students] outside of the class and let them go, that the students are going to be diligent and get to work,” she said.

If a particular student fails to live up to her end of the bargain, or is flagrantly disrespectful, the teacher can take away privileges. The school doesn’t give detentions and only rarely suspends or expels students, according to Egler. Instead, students will have a conversation with the teacher about their behavior and will be asked to think of a way to make amends.

Mark Aguirre, a ninth-grade humanities teacher, sees a lot of students who don’t think they like school, but when they’re 14, there’s still a chance to convince them that they’re wrong. He admits it doesn’t work for every kid, and some do leave, but he’s been teaching at High Tech High since 2001 and says he firmly believes it works for most students.

“You have to convince them that what we’re doing has value by coming up with something interesting for them to do,” he said.

Aside from the small class sizes, autonomy, project-based curriculum, freedom to design classes based on loose themes, and expectation that students will create work that experts will want to evaluate, High Tech High is different from the conventional high school in other ways. Students aren’t tracked, and there are no AP classes. All students can opt into honors-level work, which comes with a few different requirements but doesn’t separate them into a different section. Crucially, students decide whether they want to be on the honors track two to three weeks into the semester, which gives tentative students the opportunity to try out honors-level work before committing.

“My first instinct was that honors students should read more or different books than the non-honors students,” said Randy Scherer, who used to teach English at the school, but now directs the High Tech High Graduate School’s professional development program to support other project-based-learning teachers.

He soon realized that only kids who already loved reading were signing up for honors. That didn’t seem fair; he realized he was just padding the GPAs of kids who would read anyway. Instead he defined honors as “adding knowledge to the world that did not exist,” such as by building Wikipedia pages and writing books, for example.

“We’re trying to be creatively compliant,” Scherer said. “We have to do something so people will recognize it. But we really want everyone to be in honors.”

The charter network has skillfully pushed boundaries while making sure its students aren’t disadvantaged when they apply to college, according to Scherer. After nearly 20 years, they’ve got a good reputation, which gives them more wiggle room with the state.

“Some of the practices we push on students, like reflection, teachers do that as well,” said teacher Mike Strong about working at a charter network like High Tech High. “There’s constant critique and revision for even things like how we have meetings.”

That can become exhausting, but it’s also what keeps the school from regressing to the mean, one of Larry Rosenstock’s biggest fears.

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Look up from this screen right now. Take a look around. On a bus. In a cafe. Even at a stoplight. Chances are, most of the other people in your line of sight are staring at their phones or other devices. And if they don’t happen to have one out, it is certainly tucked away in a pocket or bag.

But are we truly addicted to technology? And what about our kids? It’s a scary question, and a big one for scientists right now. Still, while the debate rages on, some doctors and technologists are focusing on solutions.

“There is a fairly even split in the scientific community about whether ‘tech addiction’ is a real thing,” says Dr. Michael Bishop. He runs Summerland, which he calls “a summer camp for screen overuse,” for teens.

Dueling diagnoses

“Technology addiction” doesn’t appear in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-V, published in 2013. That’s the Bible of the psychiatric profession in the United States. The closest it comes is something called “Internet Gaming Disorder,” and that is listed as a condition for further study, not an official diagnosis.

This omission is important not only because it shapes therapists’ and doctors’ understanding of their patients, but because without an official DSM code, it is harder to bill insurers for treatment of a specific issue.

The World Health Organization has, by contrast, listed “gaming disorder” as a disorder due to an addictive behavior in the next edition of the International Classification of Diseases, an internationally used diagnostic manual.

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras is the author of the 2016 book Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids. When I ask him about the term “addiction” he doesn’t miss a beat.

There are brain-imaging studies of the effects of screen time, he says. And he also has treated many teens who are so wrapped up in video games that they don’t even get up to use the bathroom.

He says the evidence is clear, but we’re not ready to face it.

“We have, as a society, gone all-in on tech,” he says. “So we don’t want some buzz-killing truth-sayers telling us that the emperor has no clothes and that the devices that we’ve all so fallen in love with can be a problem” — especially for kids and their developing brains, he adds.

Addiction may not be an official term in the U.S., at least not yet. But researchers and clinicians like Bishop, who avoid using it, are still concerned about some of the patterns of behavior they see.

“I came to this issue out of a place of deep skepticism: addicted to video games? That can’t be right,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile at Iowa State University, who has been researching the effects of media on children for decades.

But, “I’ve been forced by data to accept that it’s a problem,” he told me when I interviewed him for my book The Art of Screen Time. “Addiction to video games and Internet use, defined as ‘serious dysfunction in multiple aspects of your life that achieves clinical significance,’ does seem to exist.”

Measuring problematic use

Gentile’s definition doesn’t address the question of whether media can cause changes in your brain, or create a true physical dependency.

It also doesn’t address the question, raised by some of the clinicians I’ve spoken with, of whether media overuse is best thought of as a symptom of something else, such as depression, anxiety or ADHD. Gentile’s definition simply asks whether someone’s relationship to media is causing problems to the extent that they would benefit from getting some help.

Gentile was one of the co-authors of a study published in November that tried to shed more light on that question. The study has the subtitle “A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media ‘Addiction’ in Children.” Note that the term addiction is in quotes here. In the study, researchers asked parents of school-aged children to complete a questionnaire based on the criteria for “Internet Gaming Disorder.”

For example, it asked, is their preferred media activity the only thing that puts them in a good mood? Are they angry or otherwise unhappy when forced to unplug? Is their use increasing over time? Do they sneak around to use screens? Does it interfere with family activities, friendships or school?

The experts I’ve talked to say the question of whether an adult, or a child, has a problem with technology can’t be answered simply by measuring screen time. What matters most, this study suggests, is your relationship to it, and that requires looking at the full context of life.

Seeking treatment

Though tech addiction isn’t officially recognized yet in the United States, there are in-patient treatment facilities for teens that try to address the problem.

For my book, I interviewed a teenage boy who attended a wilderness therapy program in Utah called Outback.

“I started playing when I was around 9 years old,” said Griffin, whose last name I didn’t use to protect his privacy. He chose email over a phone interview. “I played because I found it fun, but after a while I played mostly because I preferred it over socializing and confronting my problems.”

After he spent weeks hiking through the wilderness, his mother saw a lot of improvement in his demeanor and focus. However, Griffin came home to a reality where he still needed a laptop for high school and still used a smartphone to connect with friends.

Bishop, who runs two therapeutic Summerland camps in California and North Carolina, says the teens who come to him fall into two broad categories. There are the ones, overwhelmingly boys, who spend so much time playing video games that, in his words, they “fall behind in their social skills.” Often they are battling depression or anxiety, or may be on the autism spectrum.

Then, there is a group of mostly girls who misuse and overuse social media. They may be obsessed with taking selfies — Bishop calls them “selfists” — or they may have sent inappropriate pictures of themselves or bullied others online.

Regardless of the problem, “We feel the issue is best conceptualized as a ‘habit’ over an ‘addiction,’ ” Bishop says. “When teens think about their behavior as a habit, they are more empowered to change.”

Labeling someone an addict, essentially saying they have a chronic disease, is a powerful move. And it may be especially dangerous for teens, who are in the process of forming their identities, says Maia Szalavitz.

Szalavitz is an addiction expert and the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way Of Understanding Addiction. Based on her experience with drug and alcohol addiction, she thinks grouping kids together who have problems with screens can be counterproductive. Young people with milder problems may learn from their more “deviant peers,” she says. For that reason, she would encourage families to start with individual or family counseling.

Different habits demand different approaches to treatment. People who have problematic relationships with alcohol, drugs or gambling can choose abstinence, though it’s far from easy. Those who are binge eaters, however, cannot. They must rebuild their relationships with food while continuing to eat every day.

In today’s world, technology may be more like food than it is like alcohol. Video games or social media may be avoidable, but most students need to use computers for school assignments, build tech skills for the workplace, and learn to combat distraction and procrastination as part of growing up.

How can people, especially young people, forge healthier relationships with technology while continuing to use it every day? Some technologists believe that what has to happen is a change in the tech itself.

A public health approach

Tristan Harris is the cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology, an organization dedicated to pushing for more “humane” technology. A former “design ethicist” at Google, he tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep that he saw the tech industry turning toward something “less and less about actually trying to benefit people and more and more about how do we keep people hooked. ”

In other words, as long as these companies make their money from advertising, they will have incentive to try to design products that maximize the time you spend using them, whether or not it makes your life better. Harris’ solution is to pressure the industry to turn to new business models, such as subscription services. “We’re trying to completely change the incentives away from addiction, and the way to do that is to change the business model.”

Along with Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that offers parents research and resources on kids’ media use, they are currently launching a “Truth About Tech” campaign that Harris compares to anti-smoking campaigns exposing the workings of Big Tobacco.

Fighting tech with tech

For over a decade Gabe Zichermann was a self-described “cheerleader” for what’s called “gamification.” He consulted with the world’s largest corporations and governments on how to make their products and policies as compelling as a video game.

But, he says, “There was a moment I realized that things had gone too far.” He was in a restaurant and looked around and saw “literally everyone was looking at their phones.” Zichermann started thinking about his family history and about his own relationship to technology.

He realized that his work up to that point had been contributing to some serious social problems. Like Harris, he is concerned that in a world of ubiquitous and free content, platform and device makers make more money the more time you spend on screens.

This, he says, results in “a ton of compulsive behavior” — around everything from pornography to World of Warcraft to Facebook. Feeling “partially responsible,” Zichermann set out to create an anti-addiction app.

It’s called Onward, and it has a number of different features and approaches in both free and paid modes.

It can simply monitor in the background and give you a report of your use, which for some people, says Zichermann, is enough to motivate change. Or it can share that report with someone else — say, a parent — for accountability (the app is rated for use by 13-year-olds and above).

Or, say you want to stop browsing Facebook during business hours. The paid mode of the app allows you to block Facebook, but it can also monitor in the background to try to predict when you might be about to surf there. “The idea is that when the drink is in your hand, it’s too late,” says Zichermann.

In that moment, the app serves up an intervention like a breathing exercise, or an invitation to get in touch with a friend. Zichermann calls this, “a robot sitting on your shoulder — the angel of your good intention.”

The company has partnered with both UCLA Health and Columbia University Medical Center to research the efficacy of the app, and Zichermann says they plan to seek FDA approval as a so-called “digiceutical.”

In essence, Zichermann is trying to gamify balance — to keep score and offer people rewards for turning away from behavior that’s become a problem.

The word “addiction” may currently be attracting controversy, but you don’t need a doctor’s official pronouncement to work on putting the devices down more often — or to encourage your kids to do so as well.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we can better prepare students to be thoughtful, responsible, and critical consumers and creators. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve come to one conclusion: Media-literacy education must deal with YouTube. Ninety-one percent of teens use YouTube. That’s 30 percent more than use Snapchat (61 percent), the next closest social media competitor, and even more than use tech we think of as ubiquitous, like Gmail (79 percent).

What’s more, YouTube is a unique beast and can’t just be tacked on. It has its own celebrities, culture, norms, and memes and has even given rise to the dreaded “YouTube voice.” But what I find particularly fascinating is that YouTube has its own genres and types of videos. One of these — the video essay — is something I think can be a great tool for media-literacy education. Here’s why.

What Are YouTube Video Essays?

YouTube video essays are long-form (relative to many other internet videos) critical videos that make arguments about media and culture. They’re usually meticulously narrated and edited, juxtaposing video footage, images, audio, and text to make an argument much like a writer would do in a traditional essay. As former YouTube talent scout Jeremy Kaye puts it, video essays “take a structured, in-depth, analytical, and sometimes persuasive approach, as opposed to the quick ‘explainer’ video style.”

Inside Out: Emotional Theory Comes Alive - YouTube

Why Are They Great for Learning?

It’s easy to dismiss a lot of what circulates on YouTube as frivolous, silly, or even obnoxious, but video essays are the opposite. They demand students’ attention but not through cartoonish gesturing, ultra-fast editing, and shock value (which even some of the more popular educational YouTubers fall prey to) — there’s room to breathe in these essays. To capture attention, video essays use a time-tested trick: being flat-out interesting. They present compelling questions or topics and then dig into them using media as evidence and explication. This makes them a great match for lessons on persuasive and argumentative writing.

But what I really love most about video essays is that they have something at stake; they ground their arguments in important cultural or political topics, exposing the ways media represents gender or race, for instance, or how media evolves over time and interacts with the world at large. Most importantly, video essays model for students how YouTube can be a platform for critical communication.

How Can They Be Used in Classrooms?

First, a caveat: Most of the channels below offer content that’ll work best in an upper-middle or high school classroom. Some videos can also be explicit, so you’ll want to do some browsing.

Conversation starter or lesson hook: Many of these videos serve as great two- to 10-minute introductions to topics relevant to classrooms across the curriculum.

Active viewing opportunity: Since video essays present often complex arguments, invite students to watch and rewatch videos and outline their theses, key points, and conclusions.

Research project: Have students find more examples that support, or argue against, a video’s argument. Students could also write a response to a video essay.

Copyright lesson: Video essays are a great example of fair use. Show students that by adding their own commentary, they can use copyrighted material responsibly.

Assessment: Have students create their own video essays to demonstrate learning or media-creation skills like editing.

Channels and Videos to Check Out


This is an eclectic channel that’s hard to pin down; basically, the video topics focus on whatever intrigues the channel’s creator, Evan Puschak. There’s everything from analysis of painting, to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to the history of the fidget spinner.

How Martin Luther King Jr. Wrote 'I Have A Dream' - YouTube


Vox runs the gamut of issues in politics, culture, and pop culture. Their explainer-style videos can serve as conversation starters, and since they published multiple videos a week there’s no shortage of choices. Also, make sure to check out their playlists offering essays on everything from music to climate change.

Noisy Images

This channel does a masterful job of uncovering the layered meaning — social, political, and cultural — in music and hip-hop. While most of these videos are mature, and only suitable in very particular high school contexts, there’s brilliant work on everything from the poetic rhythms of the hip-hop group Migos to Kanye West’s stagecraft to music video minimalism. Any one of these videos could inspire a great lesson or unit.

Migos | The Triplets That Brought Us Bad and Boujee - YouTube

Lindsay Ellis

Video essays are just one thing Lindsay does on her channel, and she’s really good at them. Her videos often deal with heady topics like “the other” but boils them down in accessible ways. She also isn’t afraid of throwing in a few jokes to keep things interesting.

Designing the Other: Aliens on Film - YouTube


There’s tons here focused on music with a specific emphasis on hip hop lyrics. One of my favorite series is called Deconstructed. While Deconstructed videos aren’t typical video essays, they present color-coded breakdowns of the rhyme schemes in hip-hop tracks. Students could apply this technique to their favorite songs or poems.

Deconstructing Inspectah Deck's Verse On Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph" | Check The Rhyme - YouTube

Every Frame A Painting

This now defunct channel has 30 videos with some of the best film analysis on YouTube. If you’re looking to help students analyze the language of film, this is the channel to check out. One of my personal favorites focuses on the work of a film editor.

How Does an Editor Think and Feel? - YouTube

Kaptain Kristian

Kristian focuses a lot on cartoons and comics which is a nice entry point for younger kids. His videos each touch on big ideas in storytelling. For instance, his examination of Pixar movies delves into their rich themes that break the often rote themes of other animated movies. This video would pair well with creative writing or literary analysis lessons.

Pixar - What Makes a Story Relatable - YouTube

CGP Grey

One of the more long-running essayists on YouTube, CGP Grey has a fast-talking style with a lot of animation, but does a good job of answering head-scratching questions like, “What if the electoral college is tied?” or explaining complex issues  like copyright in a digestible way.

Copyright: Forever Less One Day - YouTube

Lessons from the Screenplay

While this channel focuses on how screenwriting underpins film, the lessons offered in each of this channel’s video essays are broadly applicable to the craft of writing in general.

Hidden Figures — The Power of Subplots - YouTube


I saved this one for last because it’s the least traditional. Kogonada is a former academic turned filmmaker who gained popularity through his Vimeo video essays that, for the most part, elegantly edit together film clips without any narration. These videos are great if you’re teaching video and film editing class or  film appreciation/criticism. Creating a narration-less video would be an excellent final project for students.

Linklater // On Cinema & Time - Vimeo

Tanner Higgin is Director of Education Editorial Strategy at Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Go to Common Sense Education for free resources, including full reviews of digital tools.

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Celebrated American author Ursula K. Le Guin — dubbed by the Library of Congress  in 2000 as a “living legend” for her contributions to science fiction, who died in January at the age of 88 — had strong feelings about the imagination.

“In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order,” she wrote in Words Are My Matter. But the ability to imagine is what drives all creativity, enables clear thinking and inspires a sense of humanity. “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses,” she wrote.

Imaginative play comes naturally to children, but it’s a habit of mind that needs to be taught and reinforced throughout life: “Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy,” Le Guin wrote. “This need continues as long as the mind is alive.”

Imagination might be vital to a clear mind, but it’s not something that’s widely taught or understood, especially among older students. In a 2007 study of prospective teachers, 68 percent said they believed students needed to focus on memorizing the right answer rather than thinking imaginatively. In his improbably popular TED talk on creativity and schools, Sir Ken Robinson said that humans are born with creativity and “we get educated out of it.” Jenny Smith, who graduated from Millburn High School in 2013, said that her secondary school focused singularly on academic benchmarks. “No one really cared about trying to develop our imaginations,” she said. “There was a curriculum, and they stuck to it.”

Researcher Wendy Ostroff, author of Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, is a student of imagination and curiosity. Like Robinson, Ostroff believes many schools are set up in such a way as to wring out kids’ natural imaginativeness. “School is very oriented towards concepts,” she said, with walls between the creative classes like art and drama and “real” subjects where students have to perform. Lacking flexibility and time, teachers are required to hit “learning outcomes” and hew closely to lesson plans. Students respond by trying to please the teacher and get A’s, often losing any intrinsic interest in the subject along the way. “This is the opposite of imagination and creativity,” she said.

Because imaginative thinking hones creativity and improves students’ social and emotional skills, it’s something that teachers and schools should fold into their planning. Ostroff identified several strategies teachers can adopt to encourage older students to activate their dormant imaginations.

Give students more control. Loosening the classroom structure and allowing students more power over their work can activate their curiosity. Ostroff encourages teachers to “flip the system,” so that students understand that the learning is for them, and not the teachers. As a practical matter, this might mean assigning essays and allowing the students to determine their length, or telling kids to turn the papers in when they’re done rather than on a particular day, or simply offering a free-write period, where students write what they please for their eyes only. Teachers also can invite students to decide for themselves how a paper or assignment is assessed, and to encourage kids to reflect on and evaluate their own work. “They start to crack open when they feel like they’re in charge,” Ostroff said.

Have students track their Google searches. Internet search engines can seem to provide all the answers, blocking students from thinking expansively. For Ostroff, “Google is the beginning of the learning, not the end.” She recommends the following assignment: Ask students to Google something that they find intensely interesting. Then, suggest that they click the hyperlink that’s most appealing, and then the one after that. They should keep track of what interested them in each link, so they develop an awareness of their own process. A student might start by searching “Mayans,” then move to “jewelry they wore,” then “precious metals,” then to “mining.” The point is to understand that learning is not simply finding an answer; it’s going deeper to figure out the next question. The first Google search should be the start of a larger inquiry. “Learning is about letting yourself get carried away,” Ostroff said.

Tell collaborative stories. Reading and telling stories is an effective way to learn. To spark imagination, the teacher might start by writing the first few lines of a story or poem on a piece of paper. She then passes the paper to a student, who adds more to the story. Every student receives the paper in turn, but reads only the written contribution of the student before her. (The paper should be folded to conceal all but the most recent addition.) This kind of impromptu storytelling, with its unpredictable outcome, keeps students engaged and thinking creatively.

Try improv. Once the domain of jazz musicians and comedians, improvisation has found its way into businesses and schools. Improv is the practice of telling stories, or playing music, without scripts. One person begins the story with a few lines, and turns to the person next to her to continue it, and so on, until everyone in the group has contributed. The inviolate rule of improv is “yes, and”—meaning every contribution is accepted, regardless of its randomness, and woven into the story. Improv sparks creativity and spontaneity, and its nonjudgmental tone frees up the introverted or fearful. Because improv tends toward playfulness, it also allows some lightness into the classroom, and to learning.

Introduce real-life experiences whenever possible. What might seem bloodless or irrelevant in the classroom can come alive if students see the subject play out before them. To bring energy to science and math, for example, a teacher might take her class to a Maker Faire, where kids (and sometimes adults) use their imaginations and minds to create new things. Ostroff suggests something as simple as taking a walk in pursuit of objects that can be used to build sculptures; or, if a manufacturer is nearby, asking for their remnants to build machines. Another interesting project for teenagers is building a “box city,” in which students construct their own buildings and work to combine them into a model city. Done right, the box city will take into account economics, geography, history and culture, and give children hands-on experience with design and urban planning.

Encourage doodling. Drawing pictures or coloring while listening is both common and useful: it enables the doodler to stay focused and heightens intellectual arousal. Teachers can capitalize on that benefit by including doodling in class work. For example, students can be given notebooks to doodle in when listening, and asked to do a “doodle content analysis” of their scribbles. As well, teachers might ask students to select one or more drawings to modify for an art project, or to combine several doodles into a mural. The point is to be mindful of the value of doodling—how it enhances imagination and improves focus—and to invite students to continue the practice.

Imagine a classroom “creative council.” The council is an imaginary body of visionaries and experts that the students could “create” and then look to for answers to problems. A teacher might ask students to recommend people from the past or present who could “sit” on this council and serve as sources of wisdom. Ostroff writes, “We can tap into their knowledge virtually, by imagining and researching their potential responses and actions.” If students selected Marie Curie, for example, they would speculate about how she would respond to a particular issue. How would she approach the problem? What would she say we’re forgetting? This kind of made-up collective compels students to better understand how another thinks and even provides a kind of “imaginary mentorship.”

Lighten up. “The message kids are getting in school is that learning isn’t fun,” Ostroff said. High school kids especially, who are reminded regularly to get serious about their studies, lose their sense of playfulness and replace it with a grim determination to do well. For their part, teachers feel the weight of lesson plans and standardized testing, all of it compressed into shorter days. Ostroff appreciates the challenge for students and teachers who are caught up in an efficiency model of education. By relaxing lesson plans, trying improv and giving students more voice in their education, teachers can shed some of the burden and restore the joy in learning.

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At the start of the new year, parents may encourage their teens to detox from social media, increase exercise, or begin a volunteer project. While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.

The study, published in December in the Journal of Adolescence, suggests that altruistic behaviors, including large and small acts of kindness, may raise teens’ feelings of self-worth. However, not all helping behaviors are the same. The researchers found that adolescents who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem one year later.

“Surprisingly, teens who helped friends and family members did not report the same emotional change,” says Dr. Laura Padilla-Walker, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University and one of the study’s researchers.

The study, which included 681 adolescents between the ages of 11 and 14, examined how helping, sharing, and comforting others affected teens’ self-confidence. Between 2008 and 2011, the researchers surveyed the study participants yearly. Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.

Padilla-Walker says the study findings suggest there’s something unique about leaving one’s comfort zone to support someone you do not know.

“Helping a stranger is more challenging than assisting a friend, and when teens take this risk, they feel more competent,” she says.

For many teens, the turbulent adolescent years bring social and emotional challenges like learning to resolve conflicts with friends, coping with peer pressure, and dealing with rejection. These newfound stressors can rattle their self-esteem. Witnessing their kids’ angst can be painful for parents who feel unsure how to help. However, Padilla-Walker says helping teens find ways to feel more self-assured can be immensely valuable.

In fact, volunteering may do more than boost personal morale; studies show altruism can help people connect socially, which may prevent loneliness, as well as alleviate mental health concerns, like depression.

These psychological benefits may be especially significant for teens, as studies show anxiety among adolescents has risen in the past five years. A recent mental health survey, conducted on college campuses around the nation, found that over 50 percent of students seeking psychotherapy suffered from anxiety. Research also shows that by the age of fourteen, 25 percent of teen girls and 10 percent of teen boys struggle with depression.

According to the American Psychological Association, young adults now face greater social and economic challenges than did previous generations. Between 1989 and 2016, over 40,000 college students completed a survey measuring their tendencies towards perfectionism.

Today’s young adults are more competitive and inclined to be perfectionists, expecting more of themselves and others. Perfectionism seems particularly harmful when one feels pressured to meet unrealistic expectations set by others. The researchers found that this “social” perfectionism makes students more susceptible to psychiatric concerns like eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.

“With the vast amount of information on the internet and social media, adolescents may feel like every choice they make — big and small —is an opportunity for failure. Even worse, they may fear that this failure is permanent,” says Dr. Abigail Marks, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco who works with parents and teens.

While altruistic acts may bolster teens’ wellbeing, many adolescents may reject the idea that they need a confidence boost.

“Recommending anything that may improve a teenager’s behavior always carries the risk of seeming condescending or critical,” says Marks. And when it comes to volunteering, suggestions made by parents about “who” and “how” to help can sound like a demand, not an opportunity.

Instead, Marks suggests that families discuss potential volunteer projects together. Even though it may seem impossible to communicate with a teenager at times, when asked to share their opinions they often develop interest. And connecting with this curiosity can help them identify an activity they value.

Of course, like many of us, teens may feel as if there aren’t enough hours in the day to take on a new responsibility like a lofty volunteer project. However, virtual volunteering, such as donating to a “Go Fund Me” campaign or writing an advocacy letter can also be worthwhile. The non-profit organization, DoSomething, also lets youth help remotely. By signing up on the site, they can join other volunteers and create social justice hashtag campaigns, use Instagram to support refugees, and tweet to raise awareness about education policies.

“Helping strangers doesn’t need to be on a grand scale. When teens can see the benefit of their actions, they often realize how much power they have to support others,” says Padilla-Walker. And that can inspire more self-confidence.

Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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