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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.

 

 

Technology Fear Therapy for Parents and Schools

Just in time for the Halloween season comes this post inspired by Wes Fryer (@wfryer). A few months ago I noticed a change on Wes’ Twitter profile to now include the job title of “Technology Fear Therapist”. See below:

Notice the title change by Wes…subtle

Annually, I travel to all the booster club meetings and church groups around my district giving talks around technology, social media, and our kids. His title change, while arguably un-subtle, struck a chord with me when it comes to those in my role in a school district. I’d say this same role applies to the teacher that uses technology meaningfully in their classroom or the parent that uses it as a tool in their homes.

We have entered an age of extremism in some ways. Everything is good or everything is bad. It’s either black or white, there is no grey area. Technology, being fairly new on the scene, has seen the brunt of this extremism as you can scan articles, blog posts, Facebook rants, tweets, and even commercials like this one here that are intended to subtly shame people for having their phones out. Parents and schools are feeling judged, whether justified or not, about their usage of technology and that of their kids. What’s interesting is, I don’t see the same level of judgment when it comes to a kid that reads too much or a kid that paints too much. However, once that kid reads or creates on a screen, judgment ensues.

This reminds me of an H.P. Lovecraft quote that I use quite often is:

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

This fear of the unknown has affected how we approach technology usage with our kids and could debilitate the future wellness of our kids. As with anything in life, balance is what we should be trying to achieve. Being fearful of technology or social media or banning it all together doesn’t help with that balance.  My hope in this article and the accompanying talks is to empower parents and schools to work with kids on this balance. To do so, we need to first look at what is creating or increasing the fear and then determine how do we turn that around so that we can embrace the changes around us.

A Disclaimer on “Research”

Know this, research can be used negatively or positively to persuade an audience. Part of the extremism I mentioned above around technology is usually accompanied by a line that looks something like this: “More and more research is showing that [insert tech term here] is bad for kids.”  Let’s unpack that for a moment. The first part of that sentence isn’t fact-based at all, it’s an opinion to the person writing it that they perceive an increase in research towards one direction or another. The truth is, there is more research out there (which happens over time naturally), but it’s in both directions and sides of the argument (again, remember the extremism).

I recently had an enlightening discussion with a colleague (Dr. Holly Moore) around research and how it’s viewed and used. Essentially, saying the words “there is research out there” supporting a side to an argument doesn’t really make it so (obviously). However, linking to research in the form of scholarly research articles that have been vetted at a university or medical level can be powerful. Links to a New York Times post or a blog post don’t qualify as actually vetted research, those are just the opinions of the writer, meant to persuade readers or increase readership.

Let’s look at the following example that was recently shared with me: A Dark Consensus on Screens and Kids. The title gives me pause immediately as it implies there is some sort of national agreement on what follows. Then take a look at the tag-line “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones” – that’s a major red flag and should add some level of skepticism about what is to follow unless….it supports your own narrative. Looking over the article, it’s riddled with anecdotes and stories from a handful of people. Another red flag – This article includes ZERO links to actual research. At the end, there are some links about some big name Silicon Valley people that made choices around their own kids and technology usage.  Note that the attribution to Mark Zuckerberg isn’t actually Mark, it’s an associate at his former company. There is a link to Melinda Gates where she actually talks about working to balance tech with her kids and even the Steve Jobs article where he talks about he limited technology use at home. That’s a much different story than “consensus of Silicon Valley figure heads is that screens are bad.” But you can see why the title is so attractive and why for some, it helps support their narrative.

It reminds me of a post I wrote earlier this year – EVERYONE Who Reads This Blog Becomes Smarter, Study Shows – as a way to lure in readership. Even in the cases of research that is not just an opinion piece like the NYTimes article above, you have to look at who is sponsoring the research as it may be used to push an agenda in one direction or the other.  The larger concern as a community is that people read these articles and consider them to be absolute truth. This only expands the technology fear and is exacerbated by the following two effects.

The Echo Chamber Effect

We are creating our own echo chambers around all sorts of topics (especially politics at the moment). Whether it be on Facebook or chatting with other parents at our kid’s soccer game, our conversations influence our actions and reactions. However, our conversational circles are extremely closed and lack, in many cases, a diversity of thought or opinion. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people that share our morals and beliefs. This also means when someone from our trusted circle brings forth an example or blog post that supports our beliefs, we believe to be a hard fact even if it isn’t. This “Echo Chamber Effect” leads to an increase of the next Technology Fear Factor…

The Anecdotal Evidence Multiplier

Someone saw someone once do something inappropriate with technology. Someone heard from a friend that a kid was having behavioral problems due to screen time. Someone shared an article like the NYTimes one posted above that is really just a series of anecdotes, but cause for concern. This story or situation is shared and re-shared in the trusted circle which therefore causes the human mind to feel it must be widespread when in fact, it’s a single situation shared multiple times. This isn’t unique to technology by the way, but lately it seems that tech is the largest passenger on the Anecdotal Express.  Whenever I hear of someone struggling with their kids and technology, I try to remember there are two sides to every story and there are multiple other factors that might be having an affect on the child (family environment, sleep, diet, expectations, etc.) before I take it in as fact.

Hearing a story, even from someone in your trusted circle, doesn’t mean it’s 100% fact. The culmination of many of the above effects is evidenced by this recent findings from an Australian company called Reachout. (somewhat similar to our CommonSenseMedia here in the states)  One of the lead findings is that 45% of parents worry about social media usage with their teens more so than the 25% who worry about drug, tobacco and alcohol usage with teens.  Technology has now become more dangerous in these parents’ minds than things that actually do physical damage to the body. That’s not to say there isn’t the possibility of emotional and psychological damage due to social media (more on that in a minute), but that we are more worried about the unknown of social media versus the known vices we all grew up around prior to adult life.

Social Media

As you can tell by the above data, social media can seem like a scary place for some. Despite all of its perceived ills, there are some positives as well. According to a Pew Internet Study (May 2018), the feelings of teens when it comes to social media is pretty mixed. While 24% feel that social media negatively impacts their lives, 31% feel it adds some benefit. The rest fall in the middle of either indifference or no impact.

So whether we like it or not, it does have an effect on kids’ lives. As educators, we need to work with students on this impact and teach them how to balance its effect so that positive number is increased (or at least lower the negative one). As parents, we need to have open and ongoing discussions with our own kids around situations that arise on social media, just like real life.

Our district has spent the last two years investing heavily in curriculum and resources around social emotional learning. Technology and social media are intrinsically tied to this initiative. That said, there are some very intriguing resources available to the general public around the topics of social media, mindfulness, and tech-life balance (scroll to the bottom for these resources).

Screen Time

The debate around screen time has been happening since the 1950’s and the invention of the television. It’s not a new argument, but as we have seen an increase in screens entering our lives, there has also been an increase on research around their effect on our eyes and minds. The American Academy of Pediatrics  has put out guidelines around screen time for the last several decades and recently updated some of their recommendations. Schools around the country are faced with a conundrum when it comes to screen time and kids, so keeping the recommendations of the AAP in mind are key when issuing school work on screens. In my parent talks, I reference the following graphic to show that screen time can fall into four quadrants and even within each quadrant is a continuum based on the media being used or consumed.

Screen time can fall into these four quadrants

As a parent, teacher or school district, it’s important to discern how the screens are being used inside the classroom (a place that schools can control) and inside the home (a place where parents can control).  Keeping on the same page as a community around this topic will strengthen the connections being made and help students learn balance and self-management as they age out of our programs.

Trends

A large amount of energy has been spent around the research and effects of social media and screen time and with good reason. These two topics even deserve their own sections in this post (above), so I think it’s important to note that these are two of the top issues weighing on the minds of parents. That said, sometimes I try to think and predict what’s next? A few trends I see globally that will have an effect on our kids are:

The Internet of Things (IoT): When we increase technology access, we increase the chances for something to happen (whether it be good or bad).  On the smart home front, I had my own parenting flop recently when I gave all three of my daughter’s an Amazon Echo Dot in their room and then FAILED to set up any type of restrictions right away. While they didn’t get into anything too bad (turns out the Chordette’s song Lollipop has an alternate version by Lil’ Wayne), they were able to freely purchase anything they liked. “Alexa, send me some puppies” and “Echo, send me a pet from the Amazon” were a couple of requests which resulted in the strange delivery below appearing on my doorstep a few days later.

Stuffed animal puppies and a boa constrictor from Amazon! (Turns out my parents were behind this prank)

While the prank above did illicit a fair share of laughs around the Hooker household, it did make me pause and think. As parents in this world of the “Internet of Things”, we have to consider that anything with connectivity has potential benefit and detriment depending on the action of the user. Again, it’s all about the balance.

(for a quick laugh tied to this topic, see my post on “When Smart Homes Attack“)

Augmented and Virtual Reality: The increasing use of augmented and virtual realities in the everyday world will have a tremendous effect on the future of our kids. They’ll be able to pull up their phones or put on some glasses and instantly see shopping deals, directions, and traffic patterns to avoid. Doctors can already use augmented reality tools to locate veins and virtual reality is allowing doctors to train and practice delicate medical procedures.

We can already immerse ourselves in virtual parts of our world and even other worlds (read Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One to see the possibility of this). Just like with smart devices and the internet of things, the increase of technology also means that we’ll need to make sure we increase attention on keeping our tech-infused life balanced. While I see some tremendous benefit to these technologies, I also worry about over-use and misuse of these tools if left unchecked.

The Ever-Changing Role of the Parent

So what does all this mean for the role of parents? As a dad of three little girls, I am both excited and exhausted to think about what the future holds for them when it comes to technology. I know my role as a parent (just as the role of educator) is to help maintain and model what good digital wellness looks like. All three of my girls are different in many ways, but I see this a lot when it comes to their behavior and attitude around screen time (specifically the passive-entertainment based screen time from the graphic above). We have struggled with our middle child around this, but like anything else when it comes to parenting, consistency and communication are the key. We’ve spent a great deal of energy in helping her learn self-management. As the AAP puts it, we need to become media mentors for our kids.

This is NOT easy. The easier solution would be to not have any of our kids deal with technology at all, which is justified by anecdotes and fear-learning stories. Just make it a complete no-tech zone at home, problem solved right? This may be the easier solution in the short-term, but it’s not a long-term way to teach and raise our kids around these tools that will be with them the rest of their lives. Our role as parents and as educators is teaching them the right balance.

After all, we’re raising adults, not children, right?

Tools and Resources for Parents and Schools

This is in no way a comprehensive list, but a good start when it comes to tools and discussion points with parents and school communities around a balanced approach technology usage.

Common Sense Media I’ve mentioned this in this post and several past posts. A great FREE resource for parents when it comes to apps, social media, movies, etc.

Note To Self Podcast – Manoush Zamarodi is an amazing podcast host who brings in people from a variety of industries to discuss how we keep life balanced in this every changing world.

TechHappyLifeA site created by Dr. Mike Brooks (a local Austinite) on tools and tips for balancing a “tech happy” life. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching Dr. Brooks speak and would say he’s a great person to consider brining in to your next parent group meeting. He’s even put out a book recently titled Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.

Dr. Devorah Heitner – I’ve become familiar with Devorah’s over the years and have seen her present at SXSW here in Austin. I also interviewed her for my own book series around this. He book ScreenWise is a tremendous resource for any parent and I see now that she’s even offering up a Phonewise Boot Camp for parents!

Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential – The Education Initiative out of UC-Santa Barbara has some potential for helping high school students when it comes to actual strategies and training around digital wellness and life-balance. Dr. Michael Mrazek and his team of researchers are discovering new ways to help schools with this and with the help of the Department of Education, hope to be reaching at least a million high school students yearly from now until 2025.

Right-Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World – This book came highly recommended to me from colleague Brianna Hodges and has many easy to digest scenarios and tools for parents of teens and pre-teens.

Kerry GallagherKerry is another colleague that I’ve come to know over the years when researching digital wellness. She is a practitioner (she’s an AP at a school in the Northeast) and a tremendous speaker on a variety of topics but especially in the world of digital connection and our youth.

Mobile Learning Mindset: A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Digital Age Learners(shameless plug alert) A 10-chapter book I wrote around this topic along with tools and scenarios for parents to consider.  Got to pay the bills some way!