Technology and Schools: Should We Add More or Pull the Plug?

If we encourage yet more activities that involve staring at a screen, we'll be depriving our youngsters with essential ingredients that are vital to being human.
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In a year in which schools have made headlines for every problem imaginable, one issue is slipping through the cracks, the consequences of which not only impacts our kids' education, but every aspect of their lives. Schools are lobbying for students' attention by embracing technology in ever increasing ways. This is the moment, however, to pause and consider whether we want to sacrifice our kids' last remaining hours of non-screen time by incorporating Facebook, iPads, and other devices into the curriculum. The cost of going too far down the digital highway is enormous: Without engaging with the real world, kids' ability to form relationships, sustain focus, and maintain optimal health are all at risk of being compromised.

Teachers, painfully aware of how distracted and disinterested their students have become, attempt to teach while kids wistfully gaze at the clock for the moment when they can freely check their text messages. Those who cannot endure being "unplugged" for the duration of a 45-minute class, secretly text their friends ("friends") while pretending to fumble in their backpack. In an attempt to make class work more interesting to the over-stimulated, many teachers are subscribing to the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy, weaving the Internet into more and more elements of the curriculum.

Our kids don't need to be on screens more; they need to be on them less. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study shocked its researchers by discovering that children and teens are spending over seven and a half hours a day on some form of screen, not including texting. According to a study by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, one in three teens send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month. If we don't set clear guidelines about how many hours we want our youngsters glued to a screen every day, we will find them increasingly incapable of functioning without being plugged into something. Regardless of how adept our children are at managing the bells and whistles of today's latest device, success in the real world still requires real life skills that cannot be acquired by even the latest and greatest Apple ipodpadtouchthingie.

Today's kids are losing the ability to enjoy the sweet and mundane moments that are part and parcel of ordinary life. Most youngsters, if stuck waiting for a ride, cannot endure simply waiting: they whip out their cell phone to feed their insatiable need for stimulation. The tradition of playing outside after school to shake off the stagnation of sitting at a desk all day has been abandoned in favor of more sitting in front of the TV or computer, contributing to alarming obesity rates in children.

Communication skills are falling by the wayside as children master the shorthand lingo of email and text messaging. When it's time for family dinner -- one of the best opportunities for developing the ability to converse by actually speaking in full sentences and patiently listening to others, they beg off with, "I'm not hungry." (Why risk missing the five-way chat that's going on in your pocket -- even if the gist of that "conversation" is, "Whassup?") Research has shown that the dinner table is one of the key places that young people learn how to argue and engage in civilized debate; clearly there's a desperate need in our society for that set of skills.

In addition to losing the capacity for meaningful conversation--an essential ingredient to genuine connection -- our kids are taking multi-tasking to new heights, exhibiting ADD'ish characteristics even when they don't have the disorder. In an experiment at Cornell University, half the students were allowed to surf the web during a lecture, while the others weren't. It should come as no surprise that those who surfed the Internet during the professor's lecture performed worse on a follow up test. But this is how our youngsters study: simultaneously browsing You Tube videos, checking sports scores, texting their friends, uploading photos, downloading apps, all while watching their favorite TV show.

Which leads us to another point: From the moment our kids get home from school they announce that they have to plug in, since nearly every stitch of homework requires the use of the computer. Remember poster board, magic markers and shoebox dioramas? Surely there was some value in creating something with paper, scissors, cardboard and imagination.

Increasing the use of technology in the classroom is like feeding our kids pop tarts and soda; it tastes good and they like it, but it doesn't offer the nourishment they need. If schools go hi-tech across the board, they'll be feeding an addiction that, as most parents can tell you, is already out of control. Many teens sleep with their cell phone, the equivalent of an adolescent security blanky. A survey of sixteen hundred women between the ages of eighteen and fifty-four conducted by Lightspeed Research found that thirty-nine percent considered themselves Facebook addicts. Of those women, a significant percent admitted that they check their accounts in the middle of the night. Once these devices become waterproof, our kids will be taking them into the shower with them. No need to be "cut off" just because you're a tad odiferous.

As two women who are in the trenches everyday with kids (family therapist and moms) we are deeply concerned about what digital overload is doing to our children, not to mention those of the next generation. Today's toddlers are routinely given Mommy's iPhone when they need to be quieted down, promoting fixation on devices at ever-younger ages. If school can't be a screen-free place for learning -- at least for a significant part of the day -- imagine the results of the next Kaiser study.

It is time to engage in a purposeful, reasoned debate about where we're headed with the use of digital devices in the classroom. We recognize that there is tremendous value in technology and learning, and are by no means advocating abstinence. But we need to be cautious about plugging our kids in more, pushing them into an even greater dependence on electronics. We need balance that stems from understanding that more isn't necessarily better.

Childhood is a brief flicker on the screen of life, and is meant to provide children with the chance to engage with people, nature and the world around them. If we encourage yet more activities that involve staring at a screen, we'll be depriving our youngsters with essential ingredients that are vital to being human.

Laurie David is the author of The Family Dinner. Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles

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