Children and the Use of Technology

(I published this piece on the Keystone blog a few months ago, and reprint it below.)

One topic often discussed in my conversations with parents is the impact of technology on family life.

Context – how common is technology in children’s lives?

The pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is undisputed. The Connected Kids Report last year showed that children aged 5 – 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours in 1995. (UK adults spend even more time). Smartphone and tablet ownership amongst children is at an all-time high; did you know that more than one in 10 children aged 3 – 4 now have their own tablet (11%, up from 3% in 2013)?

Few areas of modern life are technology-free and teenagers in particular perceive themselves to be at a social disadvantage if they do not have a smartphone. Combine this peer pressure with an educational environment ever more in thrall to the use of technology in the classroom (the growth of BETT even during the years I have been running Keystone has been staggering) and the occasional concerned voice raised in opposition to this omnipresent technology is, if heard, rarely listened to.

What is wrong with technology?

Technological improvements have liberated and enriched whole areas of human activity in ways that the most visionary alchemist of yore could never have predicted. Few of its critics fail to recognise these contributions. Nonetheless, there are three particular concerns that parents have as they see the relationship their children have with technology.

  1. Social media – a shallow form of communication. Perhaps the most popular form of technology in children’s lives is social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. One of the most eloquent critics of the impact of social media on children’s social development is Sherry Turkle, whose books Reclaiming Conversation and Alone Together are well worth reading for parents who want to explore the issue further. She points to the fact that children have started to prefer digital communication over in-person / face-to-face communication, in part because it is easier to control. Children, especially in their teenage years when many are so nervous about how they are perceived, prefer to present more perfected selves via digital means rather than face the messiness, stumbles and mistakes of real-world, real-time communication. Of course, though, it is exactly this older form of face-to-face communication that is so important to the development of the self, and the development of such attributes as empathy. A 2011 University of Michigan scan of studies of American college students found a 40-per-cent decrease in empathy in the past four decades, with the steepest declines appearing in the past 10 years. These figures lead Professor McGilchrist to comment last year that smartphones were making children “borderline autistic” – though this was critiqued well in BigThink. But Turkle is surely persuasive when she says: “The predictability and ‘friction-free’ nature of virtual worlds is compelling to children, but it doesn’t teach them about relationships — conversations do.”
  2. Modern technology is distracting. A completely obvious point, you will say – butthis article by technology scholar Clay Shirky made me see just what a problem distraction has become, even for extremely able NYU undergraduates. In it Shirky reminds us how bad humans are at multi-tasking; draws our attention to the sinister pact made between smartphone Operating Systems and app companies to ensnare children’s attention neurochemically; and – perhaps most interestingly – shows that even students who do not bring smartphones to lessons can be distracted by the “secondary smoke” of a neighbour’s phone.  In my own experience of watching teenagers, I so often see evidence of that cruel tug placed on children by an unread message or status update, to the extent that some seem almost powerless to resist.
  3. Modern technology mediates and diminishes experience and perception. In a related concern, such technology has begun to invade experience to such an extent that children’s perception of their childhoods is in danger of being dulled, alienated and diminished. This is, of course, equally a problem for adults, and Turkle’s work is full of sad – but all-too-recognisable – stories of, for instance, the parent who reads his emails while giving his son a bath or who finishes a text as she greets her child at the school gates. Our relationships have started to slip into what researchers call an “absent presence.” We live in what Nicholas Carr calls The Shallows. In one telling statistic, although 82 per cent of adults acknowledge that using your phone during an in-person conversation hurts that interaction, 89 per cent keep doing it anyway. In my own experience, I fear that even technology use that is focused on the child (e.g. using your smartphone to record your child’s sports match or play) acts as a barrier between parent and experience – thereby draining it of some of its meaning.

What can parents do?

If the above three concerns strike you as plausible (and I’d love to hear from you whether they do or don’t), here are a few suggestions from the literature on what could be done in response – some easier to implement than others…

  1. Be strong. One of the most interesting comments I read in Turkle’s work is that children both longed for more conversations with their parents and peers (saying they turned to their own devices because others were similarly plugged in) and appreciated the liberation from them when firm rules were put in place. Even Steve Jobs, amongst other technology entrepreneurs, was firm in the limits he placed on his children’s technology use. As in many areas of bringing up children, parents should help children delay gratification and resist temptation in the secure knowledge that “they know better.”
  2. Model a healthy relationship with technology. As Turkle has pointed out, if a child sees their parent obsessed with a “shiny object” from the moment they’re born, they will want one for themselves as soon as they have the words to ask for it. “In parental slang, it has become known as the ‘passback,’ passing back the iPhone to quiet your toddler in the rear seat of the car.” Turkle recommends cultivating “sacred spaces” in family life, such as the kitchen, the dinner table and – a surprise for me – the car, in which no technology is allowed and conversation (even messy grunts and half-articulations) is fostered. If you need a hand, a friend from New Zealand points out that there are now apps to stop you overusing apps! The novelist Zadie Smith used a site called Freedom to help her avoid distraction and finish her novel.
  3. Encourage the experience of solitude and hands-on activity. Turkle convincingly points to studies showing that it is “only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” Some schools have built in wilderness / craft experience, such as Australia’s Timbertop programme or the UK’s Forest Schools, into adolescent education. However, most parents will find that simply encouraging their children to get out into the natural world or pursue quiet individual activities like modeling clay and sketching will help to achieve the same goals: slow children down and counteract the distractibility of technology. Turkle again: “When you watch children play with them, you see how the physicality of the materials offer a resistance that gives children time to think, to use their imaginations, to make up their own worlds. ”
  4. Interrogate the school’s policy on technology use. If you have found any of the above convincing, send some of the articles and books mentioned to your school. What is their policy on smartphone and tablet use? If they agree with the three problems mentioned above, how do they help their pupils overcome them?

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