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What Opportunities are Lost When You Ban Technology

This past week I had an interesting thing happen with my oldest daughter. She was playing with a couple of her friends at the neighborhood pool when some teen boys thought it would be funny if they took out their phones and recorded the girls and put them on social media. “Now do some silly dances!” the boys shouted.  My daughter, immediately turned and left saying “you can’t record me and post it. You don’t have my permission.” The other two girls stayed and started dancing saying “maybe I’ll be go viral on YouTube!”

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the above interaction. While I was extremely proud of my 10-year old’s decision to trust her instincts and leave the situation, I wondered about the other girls and even the teen boys. While I didn’t know the boys, I did know a bit about her friends and their backgrounds.  Both of her friends come from safe, secure households with responsible parents. One of the girls attends a school that has some technology. The other attends a school that bans technology. My daughter has been at a school with her own device since kindergarten.

Now, in the case of the above example, I believe my daughter’s “instinct” was actually implanted in her at a young age. Starting with her use of a device in kindergarten both at home and at school, she’s received hundreds of hours of discussion around appropriate use and digital etiquette. What would happen if I never let her near or around technology? Would these discussions still have meaning or relevance?

There is a strong movement afoot in certain communities to ban the use of all technology in schools, especially at the elementary level. It seems that piling on technology with kids is an easy target for various blogs, OpEds, and 60 Minutes specials. While I know the story of my daughter and her friends is an EXTREMELY small sample size, it made me ponder the following question – What teachable moments and challenging discussions are we taking from kids when we ban technology from their existence because “screen time is bad” or “it’s just easier”?

As with many important topics in life, I believe it is wise to enlist the thoughts and beliefs of those within our community. In my case, I have both a physical community (neighborhood) and my social community (Twitter and Facebook). I posted this idea that banning tech might do more harm than good and it quickly became a lightning rod issue.

Before I dive too deep into this, let me start by saying there are a lot of generalizations being made out there when it comes to the use of technology and devices. I’m going to make a few as well, but I do recognize that there are individual circumstances that may dictate a different path. I’m not here to preach or even “force” the use of technology 24/7.  This post is based on my thoughts and beliefs that have been accrued through 21+ years in education and 10+ years as a parent.

Before we get into the opportunities lost, I think it’s important to look at the top excuse behind why schools and families chose to ban devices from their kids. What follows below are the top arguments I’ve been presented with over my time as an educational administrator and parent.

The Silicon Valley executive parent anti-screen argument

This is probably the most popular arguments against technology is the “some Silicon Valley Executives put their kids in non-tech schools so they must know something” argument. I’ll get into the rational behind this argument in a minute, but I want to first point out that there is no great data around this. In fact, all I can find are stories about how one CEO or one set of parents (who happen to work in Silicon Valley) are sending their kid to a non-tech school.

Let’s put this into context. If there was a celebrity that all of the sudden told us not to vaccinate our kids because….wait….bad example. Ok, let’s look at this scientifically. There are 39 Fortune 1000 tech companies in Silicon Valley. They have, on average, over 2000 executives or managerial level employees (Google and Apple probably push this number even higher). Out of those 80,000 executives (again, a small number considering the population of Silicon Valley is close to 4 million) let’s say 1000 send their kids to non-tech schools (a generous estimate). That number is approximate as I was only able to find a little more than a dozen stories not involving the same Silicon Valley parents in my research.

There are 3 main “non-tech” type schools in the Silicon valley area, each with an average enrollment of 500. Let’s assume that most (2/3) of those kids come from Silicon Valley Exec parents (certainly possible considering the high tuition costs). So taking the 1000 students out of the 80,000 parents means that 1.2% of Silicon Valley Execs actually do this. And remember, my numbers are skewed to help with the argument here, it’s probably much lower.

So essentially, the anti-tech parent is saying that because 1.2% of Silicon Valley execs do this, the rest of the world should follow suit, regardless of what’s best for the kid or learning. This is a classic case of selection bias and confirmation bias– where you chose a small sample size to prove your narrative. As a parent, it gives you some cover because you can say, “See, if those parents do it, it must be the right thing to do.”

Screens are addictive and have similar dopamine release of doing heroin

I think the use of heroin as an example here is meant to really push the fear factor. Other things that release dopamine: running, holding your infant child, kissing your loved one – but no one would ever be scared of screens if the headline – “Looking at Your Screen has Similar Dopamine Releases as Looking at Your Infant Child.”

I came across this post in Psychology Today that details how we have all fallen prey to the “because…well…dopamine” argument. Don’t get me wrong, there are some companies that spend millions trying to figure out ways to get you hooked onto their particular app, but looking at Facebook for 20 minutes and taking an intense opioid are extremely different physical and mental experiences.

Should we monitor our screen time usage? Absolutely. Is it the “same” as doing heroin, not even close. Does screen time have an affect on the brain and mental health of our kids that could affect their well being? YES….But you know what has a stronger affect on well being? Eating breakfast. In this Oxford study, there was “very minimal” correlation to regular screen time and teenager mental health. (I will note that excessive amounts of screen time do have a larger effect….everything in moderation) In fact, it found that there items like eating potatoes or wearing corrective lenses had an even worse association with teen mental health.

As the research study (done with over 300,000 adolescents in the US and UK) tries to demonstrate, sometimes we cherry pick results in order to prove a point. In this case, there is a bit of observer bias and omitted variable bias taking place – cherry picking statistics that support our hypothesis and ignoring those that don’t. So yes, screens do have an affect on the developing brain, but so does sleeping, eating, relationships, exercise, etc.  

It’s too distracting and kids need to learn how to be bored

In my twitter post, one middle school teacher said “how do I compete with their phones and snapchat? It’s just easier to ban them.” While I agree, that it is easier to ban them, is that what’s best for kids and their development?

Teachers (and parents) have a role to play here. I often hear schools touting a “whole child” approach, which would mean that teaching kids how to manage their phones would be a part of that. To defend teachers for a moment, I would say that the amount of 20th century curriculum they are teaching is impacting their teaching of 21st century behaviors.

In my response to the teacher on twitter, I shared that in classrooms where I see technology being used best and with the most purpose are classrooms that are largely project-based. In these highly engaging classrooms, students are using their devices to collaborate and solve real-world problems. In largely lecture-based classrooms, learning and focusing is a struggle for many students which is why they drift towards their phones for distraction.

I know what some adults are thinking right now, “well they should be able to just sit there and listen.” For those adults, I would challenge them to do try and do the same thing and walk in the students’ shoes. In my #Student4aDay challenge in 2014, I found that even as an adult, it was hard to sit and listen in the full lecture-based classrooms. While I do think there are times to put tech away, we need to also teach kids how to focus and when it’s appropriate to take out a device and when not to. Banning devices, robs us of that opportunity.

What opportunities are lost with a ban?

The above excuses are rooted in some form of fact skewed with bias towards what ultimately amounts to the “easy button” decision of banning technology. Eliminating one variable in certain environments doesn’t fix the problem. In fact, it keeps us from addressing it all together. We’ve all had the talk with our kids about “don’t take a ride from a stranger”, but then at the same time we do it all the time with Uber.

This is a much more complex issues that warrants deeper conversations in and out of schools. The easy button is broken and we need to act rather than ignore to raise future digital citizens with empathy.

Teaching Digital Etiquette & Wellness

Many families raise their kids and teach them phrases of etiquette. Things like “say thank you and please” have been a part of our lives for multiple generations. Now, more than ever, we need to start doing the same thing with digital etiquette. We need to teach our kids how to interact with each other online. We need to demonstrate times when they need to put their device away. We need to have the crucial conversation around times when it’s not appropriate to take someone’s photo and post it online.

And we need to do this sooner rather than later.

In many of the student and parent workshops I give around the country around “Digital Wellness”, I’m always surprised by how much kids already think they know around interacting online. Many mention already having social media accounts before they turn 13 and almost all have little to no structure or family guidelines around their technology use (with the great exception being the rule around no devices at the dinner table).

Over the years, I’ve found that having these talks with 4th and 5th graders (9-11 year olds) proves to be more fruitful and impactful than waiting until they become teens. Some teens have already begun some bad habits when it comes to posting. Others have started to associate their self-worth to the amount of likes they have. Regardless of what the issue is, they all have questions about different scenarios that have popped up in their lives. Questions, that sadly never get asked because of the stigma around using technology is negative in their lives.

One of my favorite moments of my student talks happens after the talk is over. After EVERY single student talk I’ve given, I get approached by a handful of students, each with stories to tell and questions to ask. Some of them saw something inappropriate online and don’t know how to approach their parents. Others have heard or seen things from older siblings and wonder what social media is really all about. They are filled with questions and starving for answers, and while my talks help bring some of that to light, it’s important that the conversation continue at home and in the classroom long after I leave. Banning technology in schools allows educators and parents to “kick the can” down the road to high school, which I feel is too late.

Digital Parenting 101

I’ve taught online courses and written a book about parenting in this digital age. There are so many fears and concerns about what’s out there that parents opt to just hide it all from their kids as a fail safe. The ironic thing about parenting in the digital age is that the same basic rules apply to parenting in the pre-digital age. One example I like to share at parent workshops is the following:

You just baked a dozen cupcakes and put them on the counter to cool. Just at that moment, your angelic little child floats into the room to ask if he/she can have one. What is your response? Do you say, “sure, have as many as you want”? Or do you say “you can’t look at these cupcakes until you are in 8th grade”?  Common Sense Media (one of my favorite resources) posted a guideline for parents around technology use in the home. In it, they call out the idea of becoming a “media mentor”.  The idea is, that you don’t enable your kids to do what ever they want with tech, but you also don’t restrict tech out of their lives.

While it’s much easier to be a parent when you just let them do whatever they want or restrict them from ever doing anything, the truth is, we need to be raising adults, not kids. There is no easy button. Teaching them the balance with technology (as well as modeling it) is a challenging thing. Many of the parents I talk to at my workshops bring up the fact that devices in their home are a source of “extreme tension” and anxiety. I hear words like “fight” and “struggle” mentioned often. I too, have felt the fight and struggle with devices in my home, however, with the right guidance and discussion, it doesn’t have to always be a fight. This doesn’t happen if you ban it all.

The Future

I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes that I feel are really poignant for this extremely important discussion around “to ban, or not to ban”. One is from H.P. Lovecraft:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

We are all experiencing this 4th industrial revolution together. Taking augmented and virtual realities and mixing them with artificial intelligence and throw in dash of data privacy makes up a recipe of what is to come, but we aren’t sure what that will ultimately “taste” like. It’s ok to acknowledge that we don’t know what happens in the future, but we do know that technology will likely play a major role in that future. Which leads to my next quote from John Dewey:

“If we teach today’s kids as we taught yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.”

We need to bring this conversation around digital wellness to the forefront of both our homes and schools. Burying your head in the sand or banning it because of a wide variety of excuses does not ultimately help kids in their future. It just makes the present for adults much easier.