More and more people are getting aware of how destructive smartphone obsessions may become. Newly-coined words, like “smombie”, “phubbing” and a more recent Chinese-borrowed notion of “bowed head tribe”, that mankind is turning into, create images that are vivid and for that reason somewhat repulsive. No wonder that digital detox is becoming a trend nowadays. People are trying to regain control of their time and search for ways to minimise their screen time. Some take digital detoxing so zealously that they abandon their devices altogether, losing touch with virtual reality whatsoever. At the same time, they might be depriving themselves of the handy help from the devices, which are irreplaceable in terms of increasing productivity, broadening our learning and working opportunities, as well as those for communication and entertainment. 

The lesson idea that I am going to share struck me the other day as I was analysing my screen time on different devices. In all Apple devices screen time reports are a built-in feature, there are apps for Android as well. Discussing the amount and the quality of screen time at your English lesson (Pre-Intermediate+) might be a way to raise awareness of smartphone use, to explore the assisting functions of devices, and to practice Past Simple in questions and statements, as well the position of frequency adverbs in a sentence (the latter is something to be reviewed occasionally even with the students of Upper-Intermediate). 

Here I will show screenshots from my iPhone, the terminology and the interface apps for Android devices are fairly similar. Before the lesson, make sure that your students have their smartphones on them. It might also make sense to ask students with Android phones to sign up for Digital Wellbeing feature. 

Warm up

Show your students the “Beware of the smombies” sign: 

Digital intoxication: is the devil really as black?

Ask them to speculate how this sign is relevant for traffic situations. Introduce the notions of “smombies” and “bowed head tribe”. Alternatively, you can just ask:

  • Do you feel you are using your smartphone too much? 
  • Have you heard of “digital detox”? Do you think it is something you would like to try? Why (not)?
  • Do you have an idea of how often you use your devices and what you actually use them for?

Getting all set for the activity

Introduce the Screen Time (Apple) / Digital Wellbeing (Android) feature and show how to access it. Ask the students to access their data from the last week (when you start scrolling down “This Week” report, the banner appears at the top of the screen that enables switching to the data for the previous weeks). Firstly, turning to “Last Week” data will give a full-scale idea of smartphone use over a prolonged period of time; secondly, the report of the past period is what we need for the grammar practice. 

Analysing data (individual teacher-guided activity): 

Ask the students to focus on their own reports for a while. Introduce different categories (accessible via “Show categories”). 

Digital intoxication: is the devil really as black?

The main categories in Apple Screen Time are Social Networking (all the apps for communication, including messengers), Productivity (mail, notes, text editors and apps for working with documents, apps for attending webinars, calendar, etc.), Entertainment, Creativity, Reading and Reference, Education, Health and Fitness. 

The pigeonholing of apps into categories is done automatically by the system, so there is room for interpretation. It may happen that some apps are used across categories, or for a different purpose. For instance, I use Tandem app to keep in touch with my Bulgarian friend, but since we do it in English and not in Bulgarian, it is not “Education” for me, as classified by Apple, but rather social networking (and it still might be “Education” for my friend who is aimed at practising her English).

Ask the students to think of the following questions, to get ready to answer them and to comment on the categories:

  • What was your total screen time last week?
  • What was your last week’s average screen time?
  • Was it up or down compared to the week before?
  • What were your top categories last week?
  • Which specific apps and sites did you frequent last week?
  • Can you remember why you used those very apps and sites so often last week?

Pair / group work: sharing and comparing information

Put the students into pairs / small groups or ask them to mingle in the classroom. Tell them to interview their group mates, asking the questions above and any other questions that will help them find out more details. Ask the students to make notes, so that they can report on the results in the interview. 

After the students have collected the data, review the adverbs of frequency and their position in the sentence. Then ask the students to reflect on the data they have collected and to sum them up, using the adverbs of frequency. Remind the students that they still are talking about the last week’s data, so Past Simple is expected in the sentences.

You may also extend the list above and add up questions about the regular usage with Present Indefinite verbs: 

  • What apps do you use most often? 
  • What category of apps do you use from time to time / occasionally?
  • Which apps do you usually use every day? 
  • Are there any apps / sites on your report that you use / visit really seldom? Which? 
  • What is the category of apps and sites that you use and visit rarely? Why? 

Ask several students to present their reports. Discuss the results in the group and compare them: what is the highest and the lowest average screen time? What are the most popular apps? Does anyone frequent unique sites and apps? Are there any tendencies, i.e. does the screen time increase or decrease on weekdays compared to weekends? Which categories of applications dominate in your group? 

By the way, the dominance of the Entertainment category on the smartphone does not mean that you are a complete idler ☺ I use my smartphone for messaging, pictures, social networks, e-mail and location apps primarily. I never use these categories on my notebook, which is for work and hobbies, and when it comes to reading, I use still another device, my iPad, so the screen time for the three devices as to its quality is absolutely different.

Wrap up

Ask the students if they feel they might use some digital detox? Do they feel they should cut down on using some specific apps / sites? Does anyone feel they are a smombie? ☺

This is one of the ways to use smartphone interface data as a trigger for communication and grammar reinforcing. For one, you can also reflect on the number of times you pick up the phone and what exactly you pick it up for. 

Digital intoxication: is the devil really as black?

The grammar and vocabulary here could be that of expressing surprise and regret, in my case it could be something like It has never occurred to me that I pick up my phone on average 70 times a day. What on earth did I need my phone 83 times last Tuesday? I wish I used Whatsapp less often. 

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