Poor Elijah went to the mall. He wasn’t a shopper himself, so he took up residence on one of those benches provided for men who don’t want to be there. He was doing his best to appear comfortable when he realized he’d perched opposite an Apple store, filled with row upon row of tables and counters arrayed with clusters and banks of phones, tablets and other screens of various sizes.
The place was packed.
Poor Elijah is one of those rare 21st-century characters whose only phone plugs into the wall. Yet here were hundreds of people actively engaged in buying new little screens to replace their old little screens when he has managing to survive without a little screen. He smugly looked to his right and then to his left to share the irony with his bench mates. To a man — and a few women — they were all looking at their screens.
He felt like another species of mammal. It occurred to him that you can’t tell who’s crazy anymore because everybody seems to be talking to himself.
Just so you know, he doesn’t think staring at a little screen is necessarily crazy. Crazy would be staring at a little screen even if it’s doing you harm.
Little screens are doing us harm.
That’s the conclusion drawn in an Education Week commentary appearing under the less-than-reassuring banner “Digital Technology is Gambling with Children’s Minds.”
Technology fallout is hardly a new concern. Experts have been warning for years that the blue light from computer screens interferes with adolescent circadian rhythms and sleep patterns, which is why many reformers insist schools need to start later in the morning. That’s usually just before they insist students need to spend more time in front of computer screens during and after the school day.
The new report builds on “considerable research” into the “psychological impact of digital technology,” but focuses in particular on technology’s effect on children’s cognition. According to the author, “writing, reading, focusing and remembering have all been transformed,” and not for the better.
For example, a 2012 Pew study found that even in those earlier days, adolescents from 14 to 17 were already sending an average of “100 texts per day.” In addition to employing language foreign to more conventional communication formerly taught in school, text messaging lacks both the “precision” and the “nuance” of more complete written thought or conversation. Texting’s accent on speed leads to “oversimplification, decontextualized opinions” and an overall “dumbing down of content” as writers endeavor to “squeeze the most into unrealistically short sentences.” The physical challenge of typing on small screens also conspires to shorten and oversimplify messages.
While boosters laud the modern efficiency of texting, it’s worth remembering a grunt takes less time than a soliloquy but hardly qualifies as an improvement in expression. Patrick Henry was known in his day for his “torrents of eloquence.” Today we have torrents of tweeting and texting.
The report also finds “reading is similarly transformed” for the worse. Eye-tracking experiments demonstrate that “people read a page differently online.” Instead of reading systematically from top to bottom and left to right, readers’ eyes “scan, flick and power-browse” when they read digital content, often because they’re distracted by other features on the video “page.” This hit-and-miss approach is increasingly common as students are introduced to and submerged in online media earlier in their schooling and pre-schooling.
“Early and very frequent screen exposure” appears to compromise attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the increase in screen time correlates with a nearly 50 percent rise in cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since 2003. The CDC concluded “severe symptoms of ADHD” are more common in students exhibiting internet addiction.
The glut of information available on the internet has long prompted reformers to discourage or even exclude the systematic teaching of content on the dubious grounds that there’s suddenly too much information to learn, as if that weren’t always the case. This fallacy taints how students are taught everything from science and history to the times table. Students are told they can download anything they need to know instead of “retrieving” it from their “internal library,” a capacity that used to be known as memory. Given that neuroscience knows relatively little about “how memories form and are accessed,” the report foresees a detriment to students’ “capacity to remember if we stop exercising it,” and derides the emphasis on search engines in place of the “engine of memory” as a “gambling act.”
The author concludes the escalating reliance on technology may leave students, meaning future adult workers and citizens, too “distracted to truly benefit” from the information the internet purports to provide them. In the end, the rise of technology may leave our students with limited vocabularies and attention spans and without a working knowledge of grammar or the capacity to fully develop ideas.
None of these tendencies and consequences should startle us, and all of them are consistent with what I’ve observed in my students over the years. That’s not to say computers should be banished from schools or contemporary life, or there’s anything inherently evil about the internet or telephones that don’t plug in to the wall. There’s simply a difference between prudently using technology and being infatuated with it.
The problem is, public education has a habit of chasing after the latest shiny new thing, whether it’s whole language, standards-based grading or smartphones, regardless of the hazards that should have been predictable, and even after the harm inevitably becomes apparent. When it comes to smartphones, advocates cite an additional reason to incorporate their use during class — it’s too hard to keep students from using them during class.
It’s sadly standard practice for school officials and reformers to chase after bandwagons and bad ideas in pursuit of fashion.
It’s worse, though, to make curriculum and program decisions based on our inability to manage our classrooms.
If you can’t keep students from doing something in class that impedes their education, you don’t solve the problem by letting them do it.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years.