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Technologies, Developing Brains, and Teacher Beliefs – What Sexuality Educators Need to Know

Matt Richtel, "Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say," New York Times (November 1, 2012).

As reported by the New York Times, two recent studies of teachers find widespread belief among instructors of STEM subjects (science, technology, English, and math) that their students' increasing use of technology negatively impacts their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging problems or tasks. One study of nearly 2,500 teachers conducted by the Pew Internet Project focuses on teacher beliefs about technology and youths' attention span, and how teachers perceive the internet's impact on student research habits; another study, published by Common Sense Media, addresses teachers' perceptions of the impact of entertainment media on their students' attitudes and behaviors. Both studies only surveyed teachers, not students, and thus "should not be seen as definitive proof that widespread use of computers, phones and video games affects students' capability to focus."1

Key Findings:

  • 59% of teachers in the Common Sense Media study believe that entertainment media has hurt students' ability to communicate face to face.2
  • 67% of teachers in the Common Sense Media study believe that digital media has had a "very [or] somewhat negative" effect on the sexualization of students.3
  • 61% of teachers in the Common Sense Media study believe entertainment media negatively affects students' ideas about relationships between boys and girls.4
  • Approximately 75% of teachers in the Pew study say that the internet and digital search tools have had a "mostly positive" impact on their students' research habits.5

These two studies suggest that teacher beliefs about the internet's effect on students have the power to affect whether classroom instruction is relevant and effective for all learners. If teachers believe the internet is a negative influence, how readily will they incorporate on-line experiences into their repertoire when planning lessons? If they see opportunities rather than threats in the power of the internet, will they be more likely to embrace electronic technologies or advocate for access to these tools in school districts that restrict them? Although the Pew and Common Sense Media studies covered far more than sexual norms when examining teachers' beliefs about the impact entertainment media and digital technologies have on their students, the overall findings are still relevant to the work of sexuality educators.

Entertainment technology, in particular cellphone use and texting, plays an ever-larger role in young peoples' lives and their impact on learning and social relationships cannot be ignored. The pervasiveness of the internet has enabled access to sexual information and images not available to students of previous decades. With schools across the country cutting not just the school day, but academic content, the ability to access information from other sources can be crucial to students' education as well as to their health. Given the longstanding controversy surrounding sexuality education in public schools, the internet can provide students with a research tool – though fraught with risks to privacy and misinformation – for information on sexual health when their parents or schools are failing to deliver the facts they seek.

Sexuality education program planners, school curriculum coordinators, and evaluators can use the Pew and Common Sense Media findings to engage teachers in discussion of their own perceptions and beliefs about the impact of digital technologies on student learning about human sexuality. If teachers believe these technologies are harmful, they may be more resistant to incorporating them into sexuality education lesson plans. If they can be encouraged to believe in the potential of these technologies to make learning more engaging and relevant, they may ultimately find themselves empowered to increase the range of instructional strategies for sound sexuality education.

1Matt Richtel, "Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say," New York Times, 1 November 2012, accessed 11 December 2012, <> .

2Rideout V (2012). Children, Teens, and Entertainment Media: The View from the Classroom. A National Survey of Teachers about the Role of Entertainment Media in Students' Academic and Social Development, Common Sense Media, <> .



5Purcell K, Rainie L, Heaps A, Buchanan J, Friedrich L, Jacklin A, Chen C, Zickuhr K (2012). How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, Pew Internet and American Life Project, <>.