Is balance the right word for it?

As I started this school year with 500 new students and over 50 new staff, I’ve had three priorities during their induction to learning technology: organizing their Google life, managing distraction, and balance.

By far, the biggest drain on my mental resources has been the issue of balance, whatever that means. I guess my problem with the term “balance” when used in the context of technology is that it implies two competing, opposite forces. Here’s how my Macbook defined balance…

Just to see if this actually matches the colloquial understanding, I put the question to our Gr. 9 & 10 students in an assembly.

Me: Draw me a sketch of what you think of when you hear the word “balance.”

Here’s what one student came up with:
So what’s my hangup with balance? 

I guess I really don’t like the dichotomy of false choices that it creates. Balance implies we choose to do this or that, one thing or the other, but not both.

When we categorize things as opposites like this, we immediately begin putting our value judgements on those categories. One is better than the other or has it’s “time, place or purpose.”

We run into this all the time in school as: balance between online reading and printed books, handwriting and typing, socializing (assuming that it’s best done in person) and studying, screen time and… so on.
So, I’m afraid that when we say the words “balanced use of technology,” it really comes across as…
“don’t use technology too much because it’s bad for you.”

But, is it?

Does it really, as Sherry Turkle might claim, lead us to a lonely life with a facade of hundreds of online friends that we decide to interact only on our terms, avoiding the “messy” bits that can accompany face-to-face relationships?

Or, is it something else entirely?

What if our online relationships actually were more than lose, trivial interactions to people we’ve never shared oxygen with? What if we can actually make meaning, learn with, and even love people we “know” solely through online interactions?

Alexandra Samuel has a quite a different perspective on this issue and I think it’s worthwhile to watch these two talks back to back.

In her article for The Atlantic, “Plug in Better: A Manifesto”, Samuel both acknowledges the biggest issues we have with technology, digital, and social media and offers us a road map of how to do things better by unplugging from:

  • distraction
  • FOMO (fear of missing out)
  • disconnection
  • information overload
  • the shallows

I’ve decided to use these five points to make mindful use of technology actionable for our students. Grade 9 & 10s have already used these to frame one goal for themselves to work toward and we’ll check back in with them in a month to see how they’re going.

Who’s right? I’m not sure this is a right/wrong situation. I do think that being able to carry on a conversation in person is an important life skill, especially when it gets uncomfortable. But I also think that online relationships are real life too. Being in nature brings all my senses to a state of hyper-awareness and having Google Maps on my phone helps me find nature and back home.

I think it’s not either or, it’s both and…

Most of all, I also know that we need some new language to describe a healthy life that includes technology.

Who can help?


About jplaman

Jeffrey Plaman is in Singapore where he's a Digital Literacy Coach at United World College of South East Asia. He is an Apple Distinguished Educator with a special interest in developing digital citizenship.
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10 Responses to Is balance the right word for it?

  1. I don’t have much to add since I agree with what Jay and James wrote.

    Many people (adults and children) don’t have balance in their lives when it comes to something they’re passionate about, and it’s not always technology. I know students who play on three club football teams and play year-round because they are passionate about and love the game of football. As long as their involvement isn’t interfering with their ability to do their schoolwork or have time with friends and family, very few people would argue that those students need to have more balance in their lives. I have also never heard someone suggest that once a week, they should have a “football free” day so that football doesn’t consume their lives.

    For me, balance isn’t about a particular amount of time; it’s about whether something consumes your time to the point where other parts of your life are negatively affected. That means that for each person, how much is “too much” (of anything: tech, sports, eating, studying) will be different.

  2. GinA Krishnan says:

    As a teacher and as a mother, I am coming to terms everyday with the choices that the kids make today. I believe that technology is all tools for learning and how we master and use that technology will decide how we shape our future. If my five ear old son was nt iPad savvy, I should not expect him to be part of todays world. We as educators cannot really keep the generation we are preparing to ration technology, it permeats every part of our life. A the same time, we also have to each them the timeless value of connecting with friends, classmates and fellow human beings. The two are not exclusive.

  3. Jay Atwood says:

    True balance is the ability to make a choice.

    Jabiz has nailed it with that statement. To me, balance is a very personal issue but one that also inherently includes judgment. We project our own views of what balance should look like on to other people. We conclude that he is suffering from imbalance because he’s frantically typing on his phone – or that she spends far too much time at the gym. We only judge this because we thing of what we would rather be or what we could be doing instead.

    In the end balance seems inextricably linked to the issue of time…and by your time, I mean your values. “I can’t do this because I don’t have enough time.” “If there were only 28 hours in every day.” “If it weren’t for this job I’d have so much more time.” Actually, no you wouldn’t. I spent 6 years away from full-time work in a school. When people hear that they fantasize about all they could be doing instead of this. During these years I still didn’t have enough time to get done the things I had planned. I wanted to voluntour the world and to read more and to do more yoga. I felt that would give me balance.

    Only afterwards did I truly realize that it wasn’t that I did not have enough time to get things done; it was that I did not value what did not get done as much as what I did. I had true balance as Jabiz defines it–I was able to choose what I did. In these unencumbered situations you choose what you value, what you like, and what energizes you. Apparently I didn’t value those things that I had once imagined doing if I had more balance in my life. Now when people tell me they don’t have enough time for something I understand what they mean but are not saying.

    To the issue of tech balance…someone said to me this week that they were glad they did not have to spend all day in front of a computer monitor. I kept quiet because that would not make me happy. Many of the people that you all have mentioned equate the computer with bad things, work, frustration at it, and isolation. You can find balance within technology as well. For example, it empowers me, as a social introvert, to connect and to interact with each of you — something that I can find slightly uncomfortable in social situations, small talk and interaction.

    In the end it’s not the simple fact of being digital versus being analog. Rather, it’s what you value, what you choose and the activities that energize you that give a person balance.

    • Thanks for the affirmation and for further and more clearly, may I add, articulating my point.

      You also mentioned that “people… equate the computer with bad things.” and so why wouldn’t they want a balance, a break. I think this idea is undervalued in our conversations and I think it is something worth exploring further. Thanks for that.

  4. James Dalziel says:


    Great insights into the duality that we all struggle with when it comes to “balance”. I have to say that I have a particularly bias view when I hear people advocate without qualification for “a more balanced approach” or attempting to achieve greater balance in their lives. I would assert the following reasoning to arrive at a very different conclusion. If our aim is to achieve something truly great, something big, something that requires an audacious spirit and total commitment, then how can we at the same time be striving for balance? I cannot imagine that the great composers, inventors, or thinkers throughout history were role models for balance. I cannot imagine Edison dropping things at the lab because it was “quitt’en time” or Mother Teresa calling a time out because she needed to find some work-life balance. I would argue that people achieve great things by being temporarily unbalanced and entirely engaged in their passion.

    Balance then becomes a conscious awareness of healthy options and is managed based on priority, immediacy and considered thought. Why would this not also apply to the balance dilemma with technology? An educated awareness of healthy use shaped by conscious decisions to step away from equilibrium, in either direction, to achieve your goals in the short term. For me it is free will at its best but tempered by disciplined awareness of a personal ideal state.

    • Wow, two great surprises James!

      Firstly, it is so refreshing to see someone from your level of leadership take the time to participate in these conversations and in these spaces. I can only appreciate how busy you must be, but your involvement shows us (members of online communities) that you value the conversations and the spaces in which they take place. Furthermore, your involvement will help others understand the value of thinking deeply on the future of technology at our schools. So thank you. Thank you very much. I look forward to future chats here on Jeff’s blog, my blog, perhaps student blogs and face-to-face at events in the future.

      Secondly, those of us in the Ed-tech business so often find ourselves defending our ideas and our values, that we forget sometimes to think straight and to the point. I loved your idea that maybe balance is always the best way forward. What of the world of blind passion and determination. Thanks for giving me something to think about and fuel for my next discussion with others.

  5. Ted Cowan says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I’m with you in your thinking and following Jabiz’s hinting … I’m forwarding this post with my thumbs up to “the people who so often make choices for everyone” in the hopes that they will, “… join us in these spaces and have the conversation on these terms.”

  6. We can discuss this topic forever and probably should, but I think the secret is that there is no one answer. There is no one right way to be balanced. It is negotiation, a personal negotiation, that we all learn to make with ourselves and our friends, networks and communities. At it is malleable and fluid. What was balanced one week, may prove to be too much when choices become habitual and unhealthy.

    Like KL said, we are in a constant state of awareness as to choices we make. This awareness and negotiation is a difficult skill to maintain with any of our habits, addictions, or obsessions. It is not unique to technology.

    Perhaps we need to shift the conversation away from a balance in our digital versus “real” lives and begin to look at personal habits and how we make choices with our time and relationships. We need to start speaking to kids about what they do and why they do it, instead of mandating what they shouldn’t do. We need to speak with each other and share the “varieties” of activities in which we participate, so we can see that true balance comes doing many things, not being forced to abstain from some.

    True balance is the ability to make a choice. It is the ability to break habits and be aware of said choices. It is not abstaining from something by force, but by voluntarily choosing not to do one thing for the sake of doing another. Balance is not abstinence, it is negotiation.

    Love this passage:

    Balance implies we choose to do this or that, one thing or the other, but not both. When we categorize things as opposites like this, we immediately begin putting our value judgements on those categories. One is better than the other or has it’s “time, place or purpose.”I’m afraid that when we say the words “balanced use of technology,” it really comes across as…“don’t use technology too much because it’s bad for you.”

    I have much more to say on the subject, but these are my thoughts so far. It is an important conversation to have, just wish that the people who so often make choices for everyone, would sometimes join us in these spaces and have the conversation on these terms.

    It is difficult when people who do not use technology, who are not connected to a network, make value judgments and say that others should use less technology, as if by not doing what they do not understand we have somehow balanced the scales. Come join us here, that is adding balance too.

  7. Oh I do love posts like this. I’m allllllllllll about the middle. :)

    I’m not that hung up on the word or concept of balance. I think it’s super important and something we all need to strive for, and model, with our students, friends, colleagues, and families.

    We need balance precisely because it isn’t “either / or.”

    When Keri-Lee and I were out for dinner, yes, we checked in on Foursquare and looked to see what people were recommending we eat for dinner. And then, choices made, we put the phones down. Only twice more were they brought out: once to take a photo (clink!) and at the end of the night to summon taxis. In between all of this, we talked, ate, laughed, drank… all things you’re supposed to do at dinner. THIS was balance.

    At our parent session last night, one of the topics on the agenda (and of great concern) was of addiction. Internet addiction is a real thing. And then there is The Demise of Guys. Really, how much of the Internet/porn/games/books/chocolate do we need in one day? Too much of any one thing would cause alarm and we’d be freaking out. The trick is knowing when it’s “too much.”

    You both know me — you know I am online a lot. But I also spend time on my yoga mat, dragon boating, swimming, and hiking with nary a device in the “on” position. I know both of you and know that you do similarly. We, I think, are good at balance. And we should be passing this on to our students and those close to us. The Internet is not a Bad Thing — until you get to the point where you get panicky without it. And that does become the case with several people — most notably, sometimes young people who don’t have good models of “balance” around them.

    If I were to sketch what balance looks like, it wouldn’t be a binary with me in the middle. Each side of the scale is “bad” — by itself. One without the other just isn’t healthy. But I also know that the amounts of each that are healthy are different for me than they are for you. Heck, I know they’re different for me today than they will be next week, or next year. I am continually checking-in with myself to ask, “Where my balance be at today, yo?” And this is why these self-regulation skills are so tightly connected to meta-cognition and reflection skills.

    It’s definitely “both and,” Jeff. You’re totally right. But I’m okay with the word “balance.” Maybe instead what we need to do is change perceptions. Get rid of the stereotypes. When parents and teachers talk to kids about cybersafety and say, “Don’t meet anyone in real life that you’ve only talked to online” I can’t help but think of the 3 married couples I know who met online (and got married! and have children!). Is it fair for us to be de-legitimizing their experiences when we give children the message that people you meet online are bad or scary?

    I do think it’s important for us to make sure that we *are* actually balanced. There are still many teachers and parents guilty of the “do as I say, not as I do.” Parents who tell their kids to put all screens away an hour before bedtime, but then they keep their own phone plugged in next to their bed… Well, you know.

  8. Ooh, yes! This really connects with things I’ve been struggling with lately too! It’s that notion of online being wrong, less valid, less important, and face-to-face being the pinnacle of social interaction.

    Being lost in a book is ok, but being lost in a game is not. Those sort of double standards that are so entrenched in our society.

    I love Alexandra Samuel’s perspective on #RLToo. It sort of helps to offset those strange looks I get when I explain that I met on of my friends on Twitter or similar.

    Perhaps it’s a negative association/connotation with the word “Balance,” when used to talk about technology use? Perhaps we need an entirely new word?

    Maybe it’s a word like ‘diversity’ or ‘variety’ that we need instead.

    I love my life, both the online and offline iterations of it, but I know for myself I sometimes struggle to be ‘present’ in the moment, and that’s something I need to be aware of.

    Perhaps the word I’m looking for is ‘awareness’ – learning to know yourself, your habits, your tendencies and your weaknesses – and being able to temper these where necessary, that we need to develop.

    Alternatively, the word might be ‘educate’. Do we have more of a responsibility to educate those who see the online experience as less valid and less real to consider a different perspective?

    When I went out to dinner with @amichetti the other night, it was such a relief to know that she understood my desire to check in on FourSquare and find out the tips about what to order, so I didn’t have to explain myself and feel guilty for having my phone out. If I was out with some of my other friends, that might not have been the case!

    Not sure I have helped with your dilemma, but know that your dilemma is my dilemma also.

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