Adolescents’ Attention: Our Secret Weapon For Combatting The Youth Mental Health Crisis (Summer Series) | Liza Garonzik | 8 Min Read

Summer Series #2 – Let’s teach our students the Power of Attention is the theme of this article. Attention and engagement are closely connected. We have our students more hours per week than anybody else so let’s discover what they care about and use our attention to help them learn.

June 26, 2023

The Surgeon General’s most recent advisory on Youth Mental Health and Social Media (May 2023) had a big oversight: in its section entitled “We Must Take Action: A Way Forward” it called Policy Makers, Tech Companies, Parents, Researchers, and even Children and Adolescents themselves to pursue various strategies for safe(r) use of Social Media.

Missing from the list? 

First: Medical Providers—but the American Academy of Pediatrics launched the AAP Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health in coordination with the Advisory.

Second: Educators!—I would argue schools have a unique opportunity for systematic and immediate impact on this crisis. Without a doubt, educators are already serving on the front lines (supporting individual students in crisis) and administrators are architecting broader interventions (phone bans, social media education programs, and SEL initiatives) as quickly as possible. But I think that foundationally, there are some low-lift, common sense moves schools can and should make, even as we wait for research-backed guidelines. 

Zooming Out: Schools have unique access to—and control over—adolescents’ attention

Students spend, on average, 30 hours a week in school, 10 months a year. For adolescents, this is usually more time than they spend with their parents or friends; it’s almost certainly more time than they spend with parents and friends without screens. This precious time—and the power schools hold to direct students’ attention during those hours—is an incredible, if basic and under-recognized, strategic asset for addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis. 

The ability to control your attention has long been seen as foundational to well-being (and to effective learning!)—and recent research establishes that attention spans wane as screen time rises. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous observation that “attention is the purest form of generosity” feels more poignant than ever in today’s multi-tasking world, and research bears out how attentional control relates to key relational skills, like the ability to empathize.  Annie Dillard’s oft-quoted maxim that “How we spend our days is of course how…

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Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!