We All Need an Al-Anon Meeting

Abbi Mireille Dion
16 min readJun 3, 2023

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” — Proverb

This is a photo of 16 incredible English 9 students, half of an average class size of a freshmen English class.
During the pandemic and in the years just before, districts pursued one-to-one tech device practices where students would have their own Chromebook or iPad, often with sites like YouTube preloaded. Photo: Abbi Dion

Let me tell you a story… You are standing to the side of your classroom, reading the activity’s directions to a room of 33 juniors. As you read, you try to monitor their focus, their engagement, their facial expressions — all clues to whether the assignment appears perhaps too easy, or too boring, or challenging, or worst of all — confusing. None of the students looks particularly alert and engrossed which makes the viability of the assignment hard to gauge, but one student in particular catches your eye. This student looks tired, tired like they haven’t slept in a while. They’re squirming in their chair, fidgeting, adjusting their bones in search of a position that feels right. They inhale, and close their eyes. Are they having an anxiety attack? A bad high? You watch as they ask the person next to them for a phone charger, but alas, they shake their head no.

Suddenly the student pushes up from their chair, Smartphone in hand, and walks over to you. “Can I go to the bathroom?”

The next day, the same thing happens.

And the next day. And the next. And the next.

After a week of writing passes, before handing the paper slip over to the extended hand, you say “I want to ask you something: is everything all right?”

They pull a face that says: what are you talking about?

“I’m just a little worried. Not a lot. But a little. You started the year strong but have seemed to slip further and further behind, almost like you’re slipping away.” [You pause, and decide to go for it.] “I notice you using your phone a lot during class time.”

They make the same face. Are they legitimately confused? Are they unaware? Are they bluffing?

“I think you’re very bright and I’m sad your classmates don’t get to hear from you.”

“They’re on their phones, too.”

“That’s fair. Many are. Though not for the entire period. And in either case, I have a feeling they — and you — are going to want help at the end of the semester, or a higher grade. So I want to suggest that rather than go down that road, we do something about it now. Would you be willing to try keeping your phone away during class?”

“Fine.” They say it without emotion, without seeming to weigh the prospect, without so much as flinching.

“Great. I think this will be huge. I’m proud of — ”

“Can I go to the bathroom now? Are we done?”

“One more thing, I have some students who leave their phone with me, just so they don’t get caught up in anything that–”

“It’s my fucking phone, you bitch!” they scream, pushing the door open and leaving.

The door vibrates.

You look to the other students — are they OK?

A few students are sleeping, fully out, head cradled in their crossed arms (one girl is lying on the floor, with one of your sweaters (you have a few) rolled in a ball and lodged beneath her head; although this image might be concerning and not exactly hygienic, she takes care of her baby sister as her mom works overnights, and you know the kind of tired that elicits). A dozen students have AirPods in, and the volume is so loud you can hear their jams; they are scrolling their playlists, mouthing words and occasionally throwing out an arm like they’re on stage. There are two students wearing large headphones who have set up a device using a stand that obviates the need for their hands; they are grinning widely, unblinking.

However, a few students clearly saw the exchange. “Damn,” one says. “Did anyone get the video?” “Nah.”

“Ms. Dion,” a voice says. It’s Tamarr. “Are you all right?”

Your pulse is still very strong. You feel hot.

“Yeah,” you say. “Yeah, I’m fine.” The clock shows ten minutes left of class. Ten minutes. That’s a lot. “I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry you all had to hear — ”

“Hey,” Damarcus says. “That kid’s an asshole.”

“Total asshole,” Nick says. “You sure you’re OK, Ms. Dion?”

“Yes. I’m OK.”

Catching my breath. Photo by Brizeyda, a wonderful student. (2023)

Adult Reader — I am not OK.

I have not been OK for a little while. I will not pretend that students and smart phones, Wi Fi, AI — ChatGPT in particular — and the entire Ed Tech revolution are the sole cause of my not-OK-ness, but I know there is a strong correlation.

I’m not alone in these feelings — though addiction wants everyone to feel that way — alone. (Cunning. Baffling. Powerful.) And yes I believe the effects and behaviors and systems we are facing can be qualified as addiction. While I will fully admit I am not a neuroscientist, I have years of experience in understanding addiction–as an academic interest and a personal one; and the conditions I see and feel when surrounded by young people who cannot put their phones down absolutely mirror the conditions we see with other substance misuse disorders. Like all people who love, care for — and are responsible for — people who are experiencing the disease of addiction, I am hurt and troubled and bothered by this misuse. I am angry. I am resentful. But I am not alone. In Al-Anon, one of the groups that exist for those who are troubled by someone’s substance use (usually alcohol), we are told: You didn’t cause it and you can’t control it. After a year of asking, begging, pleading, threatening, explaining, loving, arguing, and sighing — I know these words to be true.

While this piece is not meant to be a list of all we know about the harms of tech use, and the harms of social media in particular, I do want to share a project from an interesting technologist and former Google employee named Tristan Harris (featured in The Social Dilemma) called The Center for Humane Technology. In terms of evidence-based research, see the ledger of harms, which is staggering and simply put, needed.

So forgive me if I diverge into the research; the data is compelling. That said, I am going to try to stick to my point: We are in an addiction system right now. And knowing this can help us move within it. If I want to endure in a career that I have loved, I need perhaps to do what they taught us one day at Mayo: love first, and, don’t be afraid to detach with love.

“Do you love teaching?” a neighbor asked me this year. “Yes,” I said. “You must,” she said. “Of all my friends, you’re the last one standing.” Me, several years ago, in a space that heals all that ails: water.

Counter-Argument: Myths and Reality

Perhaps you’re thinking: Ma’am, this is not as complicated as you would have it be. Have you tried taking their phones? (Our school, like many, doesn’t allow this — and there are valid reasons.) Have you tried telling them “No.” Yes. I have them sign a contract that spells out my concerns, my rationale, my expectations, and provides resources to the science behind the classroom policy. Have you tried kicking them out, marking them absent, or seating them in a distinct way from the others? I’d like to say I’ve never reverted to any of these, but I have. OK, have you tried calling home? Many caregivers are just as lost, hopeless, helpless, and held hostage. And, for what it’s worth, if I were to call every household for every student on a phone, I don’t think I’d leave work in time to meet my fourth-grader’s bus, or before midnight. Have you asked other teachers what they need, especially those using screen reading or other literacy apps? (Fun Fact: Teachers’ number one request for enhancing digital materials: “they want to be able to prevent students from accessing the internet while using their devices to read” (Schwartz 2023).

Here are some of the most persistent myths, often from well-meaning fellow educators… who are not currently teaching or don’t have a background in addiction science. Let’s take a look, then light fire to these myths.

Table: Abbi Dion, 2023.

“We know what it is to be lied to. And we know how important it is not to lie to ourselves.” — Audre Lorde

The Gutenberg Fallacy

One of my favorite myths comes from what I’ve come to call “The Gutenberg Fallacy” or the “Um, No Fallacy.” This is a favorite among the crowd that fears being late to the party. Their worst fear is being called a Luddite or a Late Adopter. These folx are the people who likely do not teach in a classroom of 30 eighteen-year-olds. From their vantage point: we are looking at this all wrong. “Adapt or Die.” “The only constant is change.” We might resist the change, but we do so at our peril. We’ll come to regret such remarks. One day they’ll sound not just quaint, but positively backwards.

And here is where they invoke the Printing Press. An interesting analogy for many reasons, not least of all the sheer logistics — the availability of the technology and its product to the individual user — but also the time span at which printed materials came to dominate the landscape. Centuries passed before the technology (first put to use in East Asia, long before Gutenberg was pressing out King James) was popular, before the classroom would be effected, never mind the young, the poor, and the dispossessed.

Unlike the printing press, or electricity, or the television, the Smartphone was taken up by the masses at comparatively breakneck speed; it achieved cultural saturation within three years (Marci, 2022). A record.

[Fact 2: More people have phones than have access to toilets (Marci, 2022).]

Aside: Many taut Ed Tech as a way of reducing inequalities. I care deeply about how schools can disrupt inequalities and not serve as replication machines. So I followed the ed tech boom with interest, getting on board early and hoping that apps would be the Sesame Street of the 21st Century. But. While the iconic television show, and the printing press, may have contributed powerfully to increased and equitable literacy across demographics, it’s not clear that tech — even Ed Tech — is having the same equalizing impact (Schwartz, 2023).

Slides from a presentation (Dion 2023) on Ed Tech and Equity HERE. Sources include Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age by Carl D Marci MD and Sherry Turkle’s prescient and brilliant work on the intersections of tech and humanity.

Kids: It’s Not Your Fault

I want to be very clear before I go any further:

Students: It’s not your fault. It’s not.

As a teacher, I am affected by kids’ behavior, but I know THIS is not their fault. In truth, I see them as victims of confusing messaging, a totally unregulated and profit-driven industry, as well as, a corporate model that needs users. Notice I didn’t write: “Dovetailing with this record speed of ownership and use, came strict guidelines — mores as well as legislation — regarding the use of such tech. Children’s developmental needs — their own along with the caregivers’ — were put first. Companies were held accountable for developing any tech that could lead to unhealthy use. Nothing was introduced to the market until its safety, especially among the young, was established.”

No. The tech and platforms students are finding so hard to disengage from were designed, intentionally, to have that effect. See below for a pretty uncanny correlation.

Recent increases in depressive symptoms among US adolescents: trends from 1991 to 2018. Mental health problems and mental health related mortality have increased since 2012 among adolescents, particularly girls (2019).

Addiction or Compulsion or Behavior or…

General Question: If we know something is causing us pain, problems, or diminishing our ability to engage fully in more meaningful life pursuits, wouldn’t we just stop doing it? (No. Logic does not drive behavior.)

Specific Question: If we know that a device — its very presence, not just its use — lowers test scores, recall ability, and depth of analysis (Marci 2022) then why are we arguing for their inclusion in the classroom?

There is an increasing body of evidence that suggests these tools promote a kind of numbed, out-of-body, feeling of effectiveness. Which is ironic, as the research tells us, effectiveness and efficiency drop. It’s the feeling that is so compelling. (Emotions tend to drive behavior.) And, critically, this feeling comes at a cost. Among the many things we sacrifice when we pursue raw pleasure or pleasure-oriented lifestyle — in terms of our schooling, we sacrifice meaningful, deep, enduring learning experiences (Ray 2022).

Slide from aforementioned presentation (Dion 2023) Full Presentation on Ed Tech and Equity HERE.

So why aren’t we marching in the streets over this?

I argue it’s because the vast majority are ignorant about the reality of the effects of our devices. I also see this issue as ideological: We want to embrace change and not be a Grandpa. AND, I argue, we feel powerless to control them. It’s this last one that interests me. Because powerlessness is the language of addiction disorders. I understand some will vehemently disagree, even feel offended by such a label. Perhaps they feel addiction to be relegated to a class of drugs that the government has deemed illegal. Perhaps they feel that consumption needs to happen orally, intravenously, topically. Perhaps they think that something so incorporated into our daily lives can’t possibly be condemned to that most fearsome label: addiction. And perhaps they feel this hits too close to home: “Whenever you tell someone they have a problem, 100% of the time it comes as an insult.” Marguerite Duras

Addiction is an unconscious process of negative adaptation.

Addiction is an illness of wrong choices.

The addict wants more freedom to pursue her growing addiction and wants the family not to be upset. The family’s desire to help the addict are rejected. This hurts the family members and causes them to develop, like the addict, an internal defense system. If something regularly hurts us, we naturally find a way or style to defend ourselves. So, though the family genuinely cares about the addict, the members also want to avoid the addict. Each family member approaches the addict out of love and avoids the addict out of pain.

Think of the addictive system as a system of negative adaptation. Family members will continue to adjust and adapt to the illness of addiction. During Stage One, the entire addictive family begins living within multiple double binds. Members believe they have to fix the problem, yet they can’t. Their heads tell them they’re not to blame, yet in their hearts they believe they are. The addict wants to connect with the family, yet rejects the family in favor of her addiction. The family’s concerns attract and repulse the addict.

Have you ever tried to change someone? I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that such endeavors — noble or otherwise — largely end in frustration. (Why won’t they listen to me? Why won’t they just stop? Why won’t they love me or respect me enough to change. And — why won’t they see that what they are doing is hurting them?) Throw yourself against this cliff long enough and before you know it, you’re not terribly well yourself.

Just like a person who loves and cares about an alcoholic, I am powerless to control a behavior this all-consuming. And it is folly for me to think otherwise. But this is not to suggest all is lost. As someone who is in a recovery community, who has seen multiple family and friends utterly transform their painful lives — from an instinct-driven life, a life of decontextualized distraction and pleasure-seeking at the expense of authentic pleasure and meaning — and remake their lives into lives of connection and meaning.

In Conclusion

Educators, I’ve written this for you. For us. For me. I’ve written it out of concern for our students, and concern for ourselves. I’ve used my hard won knowledge and experience in the world of addiction (the theory and the practice) to frame my thinking, and while I am not interested in pontificating, proselytizing, or bleating out the obvious, I am interested in speaking very clearly about what we know is true: there is a problem:

  1. Have you ever asked a student to put away their tech only to see it back out mere seconds later?
  2. Have you had eyes rolled at you, eyes narrowed, words uttered beneath breath when you remind a student that phones should be away? Have you been yelled at, threatened, cussed out, or treated so dismissively that you felt like giving up?
  3. Have you intentionally avoided engaging students about this topic, because you didn’t have the energy for a power struggle?
  4. Have you worried about students using phones during learning time but felt helpless to control the situation?
  5. Have you felt apathetic, depressed, hopeless, or more tired than usual?
  6. Have you ‘gone off’ or set limits about the use of phones and Airpods during class time? Then watched as nothing changed?

One can only live under these conditions for so long before giving up. When we feel powerless, it’s normal to reach for power, though it’s really a time to develop stronger skills that will help us keep meaning and love in our lives.

There are many documentaries, books, articles, and episodes available. But may I recommend this episode from The Nature of Things, via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC 2020)

I believe in the power of change. And the power of healing. I believe that effective and lasting change requires reimagining our lives. It comes from rigorous honesty about what is working and what isn’t. It comes from looking at public health data. It comes from journaling. It comes from hearing someone tell you the truth. It comes from developing new habits, traditions, and ways of being — and then turning those into disciplined practice. It comes from people around you setting limits, boundaries, and expectations — and not bending these because it is easier.

A life of meaning is a life that is shared, authentic, and not driven by the pursuit of raw pleasure.

Most of these plants failed because I 100% stink at horticulture, but I still feel this time was far better spent than any of the minutes my kids have spent watching videos on YouTube Kids. Yes, I, too, struggle to work and parent and instill the very habits I know to be critical to health in my kids — and in myself.

Epilogue: Flow

There is something I’ve returned to again and again as I’ve thought about, read about, watched documentaries about, and discussed this phenomenon. This thing is the concept of flow. Flow is state of mind where you are, paradoxically, out of your head. You aren’t conscious of space or time, worries or fears, stress or the matters of the day. You just ARE. To be in flow is a wonderful thing. At a meeting once, a guy I know who has been in recovery for many years said: the only time I’m out of my head is when I’m playing basketball or in the ocean. How tempting for someone like him, at 16, to have had an endless feed of videos, content, social posts, live cams, and games. But the thing about flow is that it needs to be authentic. It can’t be raw pleasure, decontextualized, impersonal, and disconnected from experience. It also needs to serve you, not trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and leave you in a dopamine deficit state. I want my students to experience flow. I want that for them. And as a teacher who used to get that flow-state high from teaching — I want that for me, too.

When we are teaching — asking a question or building a point or repeating an inscription on the Buland Darwaza main gateway — and we see a student’s face lit up by a phone, their index finger pressing up, up, up — our flow is disrupted. And if we want our experiences in the classroom to be more than ones of repeated frustration, power struggles, distractions, and feelings of hopelessness — we need to work together, bravely.

And we need to take care of us. Teachers — It’s tough. It’s easy to lose sight of ourselves. Let me remind you: It’s OK, it’s good, to prioritize you. (Hug.)

If we choose anything other than meaning for our lives, we will lose our way.

Two of my kids. Pretending it’s 1980.

References:

Cultivating Mental Health Equity, One Page at a Time. Nat. Mental Health 1, 1–2 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00015-1

Harris, J. B., Schmidt, D. A., Blanchard, M. R., Grandgenett, N., & Olphen, M. V. (n.d.). “grounded” technology integration: Instructional planning using curriculum-based activity type taxonomies. DigitalCommons@UNO. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/tedfacpub/40/

Heffernan, N. T. (2018, May 29). Ed tech does help close the achievement gap — when it supports teachers. The 74 Million. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.the74million.org/article/commentary-ed-tech-does-help-close-the-achievement-gap-when-it-supports-teachers/

Heubeck, E. (2023, April 5). Misguided use of Ed Tech is a big problem. how schools can help prevent it. Education Week. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.edweek.org/technology/misguided-use-of-ed-tech-is-a-big-problem-how-schools-can-help-prevent-it/2023/03

Kecia Ray (2022, April 18). Here’s what the research says about screen time and school-aged kids. Tech Solutions That Drive Education. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://edtechmagazine.com/k12/article/2023/01/heres-what-research-says-about-screen-time-and-school-aged-kids

Keyes KM, Gary D, O’Malley PM, Hamilton A, Schulenberg J. Recent increases in depressive symptoms among US adolescents: trends from 1991 to 2018. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2019 Aug;54(8):987–996. doi: 10.1007/s00127–019–01697–8. Epub 2019 Mar 30. PMID: 30929042; PMCID: PMC7015269.

Mervosh, S. (2023, April 16). ‘kids can’t read’: The revolt that is taking on the education establishment. The New York Times. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/16/us/science-of-reading-literacy-parents.html

Molla, R. (2019, October 29). Poor kids spend nearly 2 hours more on screens each day than Rich Kids. Vox. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/10/29/20937870/kids-screentime-rich-poor-common-sense-media

Schwartz, S. (2023, March 29). Kids understand more from books than screens, but that’s not always the case. Education Week. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/kids-understand-more-from-books-than-screens-but-thats-not-always-the-case/2023/03

  • All italicized quotations are from Craig Nakken’s wonderful book Reclaim Your Family from Addiction (2000).
  • In addition to the Equity and Ed Tech presentation linked above, I delivered another, more rambling one (there are embedded links there, like here, which I apologize for because hypertextuality is stressful — convenient, yes, but contributes to fractured attention and cognitive overwhelm, etc — which is very bad for our mental health, our sleep, and our parasympathetic nervous system).

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Abbi Mireille Dion

Teacher, Writer, Parent, Sister, Survivor, Spouse, Student. “Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.” — Bruce Lee