My friend’s son is obsessed with video games, including Minecraft, which she jokingly calls Mind Crack. She may be laughing about it, but the addictive nature of screen time for kids may have serious effects on their ability to tolerate the pace of the real world.
As a technophile and computer user since 1979, I love new tools and learning how to use them. The greater the creative capacity of the technology, the better. Yet I also am wary of anything that might dominate my attention, consume hours of “free” time, and — most importantly — suck in our children, taking them away from more active or freeform creative pastimes.
I do not deny that there are educational benefits to using technology. The caveat is that there is not always consideration for balance. For example, I have a new iPod so that I can have my music, photos, calendar, and address book with me when I want them, yet I do not want an iPhone. I would constantly check it in hopes of seeing the little red number on the email icon that indicates someone wants to talk to me. My friends would expect an instant response, knowing that I always have access to their communication. Because of my choice, I have to organize and save any online resources before going out in the world. In other words: I have to plan ahead. Or I decide to explore wherever my path leads me, sometimes encountering a few dead ends (insert cliché about the value of the journey). Waste of time, one might say? Perhaps, yet instant gratification also has its downside.
One educational downside to the omnipresence of technology is that today’s high school students no longer need to seek out resources, alphabetize, or do mental math. They don’t have to look things up in books. They have Google, online dictionaries, calculators … everything they want at their fingertips. Why does this matter, one might ask? Why not use the tools that save time and achieve greater efficiency? Efficiency may be great for profit margins, but not necessarily great for learning. One reason is the importance of maintaining neural pathways that get snipped in adolescence if not used. Cognitive functions like planning, alphabetizing, and calculating exercise the brain, whereas passive reception of information does not have the same benefits. A famous 1970s Stanford University “marshmallow” study and follow up studies show that delayed gratification in children correlates with greater success in life. In addition, I’ve observed that children who are accustomed to instant gratification become impatient, fidgety, or demanding. The slower pace of the real world is — as Margaret Rock describes in the Time article — “underwhelming.”
I wonder about the as-yet-unknown, unintended, long-term effects of relying on technology as a primary learning tool. I resist allowing laptops in my classroom, where face-to-face interaction is vital to learning, and where the kinesthetic benefits of getting out of one’s chair, moving around the room, and manipulating pieces of paper outweigh the efficiencies of computer technology. I have designed lessons around technology when the classroom objectives are best served by computers. Yet I do not want my students’ heads hiding behind a screen. I want their eyes on me, on each other, on the words they have written on the whiteboard, on the images I ask them to describe to the class.
In families, I notice greater numbers of children using iPads or other e-devices for entertainment in airports, restaurants, and other public spaces. I see no problem, unless this is the only way those children can pass the time. What about reading, drawing, storytelling, and observing the world around them? What happens when the tech tool is no longer available? Do children whine for more and become inconsolable? If so, then there is a problem. Screen time should be a privilege, not an expectation. Continual enforcement of limits to screen time solves the problem by allowing children to develop 21st-century skills using technology (and give their parents a break), as well as creating space for them to practice an age-old skill that never goes out of style: entertaining themselves within their surroundings.
Bottom line: The mind is a terrible thing to relinquish to technology.