Gen Z's screen time has skyrocketed amid the pandemic. The percent of teens spending nine or more hours per day on screens has doubled since before the stay-at-home orders and transition to remote learning, according to data from August 2020.

This isn't just a problem of blue light headaches and late-night TikTok scrolling. The steady stream of social media posts, misinformation, and polarizing headlines is slowly eroding our younger generations' ability to think and effectively process information.

Educators and parents alike will need to reckon with all of this in the aftermath of the pandemic. The first step: getting smartphones out of the classroom.

Today, 95% of teens own a smartphone. Most spend hours each day on social media platforms, where sensationalized posts often go viral without a fact check.

The pandemic -- and the digital dependencies it brought about -- may have made this content even more accessible. In summer 2020, more than 50% of teens were spending six or more hours each day on their screens. That's compared to just 17% before the pandemic.

Of course, young people aren't the only ones who increased their digital content consumption. The number of Americans using social media, websites, and streaming services daily increased by 47%as a result of the pandemic. 

This information overload can wreak havoc on our cognition. The more online and social media content we consume -- much of which is unsubstantiated -- the more our attention becomes divided. The average person switches between digital content every 19 seconds, with 75% of content viewed for less than a minute.

Imagine the challenges faced by our multitasking college students. While adapting to remote learning, they received an onslaught of smartphone notifications about Covid-19 infection rates, the economic downturn, and supercharged elections. In a time of public health and political turmoil, Gen Z was craving news. Yet, with all of this technology at their disposal, few had the digital literacy to separate fact from fiction.

Two-thirds of my own undergraduate students get their news from social media. The constant stream of clickbait and misleading headlines often leads them to form hollow opinions based on peripheral information and emotions. Many fail to consider the legitimacy of an article's sources or whether it cites sound data. Since they can't respond objectively, they do so emotionally.

In other words, screens have destroyed this generation's ability to think critically. Instead of thoughtfully analyzing and evaluating claims, students jump to conclusions with remarkable immediacy.

That's a problem, given the prevalence of misinformation. Articles with false information are 70% more likely to be retweeted.

Fortunately, it's possible to reverse these trends and teach young people to think critically. A 2018 MIT study found that people who engage in more analytical thinking -- as measured by a Cognitive Reflection Test -- are better at identifying the difference between real and "fake" news, regardless of their political views.

Educators have an outsized role to play. We may be students' only source of information that doesn't come from a screen. It's imperative that we use our time with them to sharpen their minds and engage them in thoughtful conversation.

That starts with separating students from their screens -- by telling them to place their phones in a box or on a windowsill upon entry into the classroom. Some universities are starting to incorporate smartphones into everyday lessons. But my latest research found that students who were physically separated from their phones had significantly higher levels of engagement, enjoyment, and mindfulness than students who kept their phones.

We'll also need to make more lasting changes to our curricula. From Pre-K to higher ed, educators must focus on teaching students how to think. That starts with crafting assignments that ask students to apply knowledge to new situations, instead of simply regurgitating it.

That sentiment should be incorporated into a new type of "home economics" course dedicated to teaching the life skills students need to succeed: critical thinking, conflict resolution, and argument methodology. In the face of unprecedented exposure to misinformation, these future leaders will need these competencies to resolve conflicts with composure and communicate constructively.

Educators can't do this alone, of course. We'll need the support of parents as well. Research shows that monitoring and reducing a child's screen time leads to improved sleep, which is crucial to cognitive function, as well as better grades.

Together, these actions will equip future generations with the critical thinking skills they need to navigate an increasingly connected, yet ideologically divided world.

Melissa Huey, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at New York Institute of Technology.