I featured this story in the Morning Links yesterday, and have been thinking about it all morning. Amanda Enayati writes about ‘unplugging’ as a trend thing, that people are finally noticing the ‘stress’ that their devices cause them. It seems to me that addressing that stress needs to start not just with the adults of today, but with the adults of the future; we need to teach kids how to interact more safely, and sanely, with their devices than we do.
I taught a technology unit to my Grade 3 students just before the March break which attempts to address this issue. I am my school’s team lead on technology integration, and I have written many times before on my struggle to put technology into its proper place in the curriculum. I want it to be seen not as a special, magical thing but as a tool, the same as a calculator or a math manipulative or a coloured pencil. I want it to be used for the things it is useful for, and I want other tools to be used for the things that they are useful for. And I want the kids to have a healthy perspective on how all of this fits together into their lives.
Our four-class unit began with a little audit of how much technology we have in our lives. I showed them my phone, to begin with, and taught them to identify it with the word ‘device.’ Then I asked them how many other devices there were right here, right now, in the room with us. They readily identified my iPad, and the SMARTboard, and the classroom laptop which was attached to it. With a small prod from their homeroom teacher who happened to be there, they identified that she had a phone too, and a stack of iPads she had signed out for later use. Then I asked them to think about how many devices they have in their homes, and we brainstormed a list of what those devices were.
For homework, I asked the students to keep a log over two days—a school day and a weekend day. I was curious to find out how many parents set limits on what devices their children use, and for how much time they use them. I also suspected—correctly, as it turned out—that most of them would log higher usage time on the weekend.
When they came back for class #2, I had already been spoken to by one parent about this. She told me she does not allow ANY device usage, and said her daughter came home and said she had to be allowed to go on them in order to complete her homework! I reassured the mother that this was not so, but when I told her what types of things we were talking about, she admitted that even in her household, the children do access her phone, primarily to play games in the car or in restaurants.
I was thrilled to hear this, as this was exactly the point I hoped to make with the children—that sometimes, we simply don’t pay attention and consciously realize how much time we are truly spending on these things. Five minutes here and ten minutes there can add up to more time than we thing being plugged into something! As I collected the homework and started adding up the numbers on the board, I could see the kid’s eyes popping—between the ten of us, including myself, we had racked up over 500 minutes of tech time over the course of just two days! They had never thought about it in concrete numbers before.
I took pains to explain to the children that I did not think technology was ‘bad’ per se. I just wanted them to think in terms of balance. Having cake and ice cream at a birthday party isn’t bad either, but you wouldn’t eat that every day. They readily grasped this, and several of them admitted that too many sweets made their tummies feel bad. I told them it was the same with too much technology—and here, I brought some props with me. We took turns handling a phone, an iPad, a keyboard and a video game controller, and for each, we talked about which parts of the body were in use and which might become tired and strained if they used these devices for too long. I introduced the concept of repetitive strain injury and told them my own tale of woe with this. I ruined my wrists a few years ago with some iPad over usage, and even now, I still find that when I overdo it, I wake up in the middle of the night with tingly fingers!
For our final two classes, I introduced our culminating project—a poster which put technology in its proper place by illustrating its role as part of a balanced lifestyle. I brought back my food metaphor here—the same way they use the food groups to make sure they are making a variety of food choices, I wanted them to think about ‘life groups’ they could use to guide their lifestyle choices. If they could try and make sure they included activities from each of the different areas, they could make sure that they were getting lots of different life experiences, and not over-doing any one thing.
We brainstormed together, and these were the life groups they came up with:
– Technology and devices: this included iPad and mobile gaming time, video games, non-educational television and similar activities.
– Learning and creativity: this included drawing, crafts, writing stories, non-sport after-school lessons such as music or drama, reading for fun, toys such as Lego and similar activities.
– Social and friends: this included visiting friends or family members, playing with siblings, playing with board games or toys and other similar activities.
– Sport and outdoors: this included sports lessons such horeseback riding, skiing and martial arts, visiting the park, playing outside and other similar activities.
For each student’s poster, I had them divide their page in four and put one ‘life group’ into each quadrant. They had to illustrate each one with at least four activities they enjoy from that area.
The students responded very well to the lessons. I was expecting to hear some objections from them about overly strict parents limiting their screen time, but they all readily grasped the issues at hand and admitted it was fair for their parents to help them limit their tech time. My worry, of course, was that they learn to become self-regulating. It isn’t enough to say ‘I am turning off the Xbox because Mom says I have to’ since Mom won’t always be there to make them stop! They all readily grasped the health implications of RSI issues, eye strain and other potential health consequences, and the food groups analogy was readily understandable.
I am doing it again after the break with my Grade 2 class and looking forward to test-driving this little technology unit further. I think that this is an important topic to address in the context of a technology curriculum, and it’s one that not too many teachers are looking at yet!
I find it most interesting that Mr. Gadget himself, Steve Jobs, severely limited his kids use of technology:
He doesn’t seem to be alone among the tech gurus either. There’s this in that NYT article:
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”
The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents.
For the last, my hunch is that they understand what the book, The The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, also explains—that success in life hinges on three traits:
A superiority complex
These touch devices, because they are so addictive, keep kids from developing the last trait. For the flip side of that—how impulse control helps kids succeed—read about the famous Marshmallow Experiment:
Youtube is filled with often hilarious videos of researchers and parents repeating that easily done experiment. Here’s one of those videos:
Someone ought to come up with a way to repeat the experiment but with an iPad instead of a marshmallow. They get to play one game now or two if they wait.
Despite being a computer programer so technically in the tech field, I finding myself more and more often wanting distance from devices. I enjoy reading on a Kindle and listening to audiobooks, butI agree too much time is frittered and wasted on the web.
Perhaps more deviceless time is called for a few hours or days per week. A few years ago I took a week long cruise with no devices – I brought real books – and never missed them.
I think that your concern with kids becoming “self-regulating” is of overriding importance. The proper mix of digital and non digital activities will vary from one individual to another and, even for a specific individual, will vary over time. Indeed, we needn’t restrict this to a dichotomy for the digital domain. All of life is a balancing act.
Parents and teachers who do that balancing for children need to think about how to successfully effect the transition from an enforced to an independent decision making model. At some point, we have to trust that they will make the right decisions (they get old and graduate) but are we helping them get to that level of competance?