I limit my own kids’ free screen time. Each day, they get 30 minutes. On Saturday and Sunday, they get an hour. School is a different story, and it’s at the discretion of the teacher. But I pay attention to their browser history and scrutinize their assignments. At home, I limit the websites they can visit using various means, I force them to ask for approval for every app they download and utilize iOS controls to restrict the age limits of apps they can even see in the first place. They leave their devices out at night and I read through their text messages. They are never allowed to go in their rooms with their devices.
But it’s not because the devil is in the technology.
The Blame Game
We all love a good blame game. We can name a whole host of reasons for changes in society, in our own lives, and in those of our kids. But if you notice, we very rarely implicate ourselves.
Parents play the game. So do kids. And so do teachers. For instance, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers say that the reason they don’t use Google Docs is because kids cheat so much. The problem, however, isn’t Google Docs. It’s dishonest kids. And maybe secondarily, teachers that haven’t adapted their classroom management strategies to incorporate ways to detect and deter cheating on things like Google Docs.
It’s the same with so many other scenarios for which technology is often blamed. Let’s just take the number of automobile accidents caused by texting and driving. The problem isn’t the cellphone. The problem is the self-centeredness of the driver who cannot possibly conceive of himself as inconsiderate as he keeps his eye on his phone to keep a conversation going that is of ultimate importance because he’s in it.
It isn’t even about moderation.
It’s not even about moderation. Moderation is what we do with things that are inherently harmful when taken in too large of a dose. Moderation is the issue with saturated fat, calories, alcohol, carbs, and oxygen (yes, oxygen can kill you).
Technology, on the other hand, is not inherently harmful. But it does have a way of amplifying our character traits. Think about how many emails you’ve sent that you wish you hadn’t. It’s also not inherently beneficial, either. One battle we have fought in education and continue to fight is the battle of “we’re using technology, so everything must be all good.” This is far from the truth. The goal with educational technology should not simply be to use more technology.
Technology solves problems. And anything that solves problems is technology: from the self-driving vehicle to the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, all are man-made inventions that serve the purpose of making life easier for us. Any time we pull out a digital device, therefore, we’re looking to solve a problem. For some, the problem is boredom. For others, the problem is communication with a loved one who’s on the other side of the globe. As I’ve said, some problems are more noble than others. There are, admittedly, some problems to which digital technology is not always the best answer. Note-taking is my favorite example. There are studies to which I would assent that suggest that writing on paper while taking notes is usually better for cognition. But that doesn’t mean that’s true in every scenario, for every person, all the time. I enjoy the freedom, in fact, that comes from having a wide range of choices to suit my needs and solve the problem as it arises.
Technology hasn’t changed anything.
Technology has also allowed us to change the way we do things, adapt our values and skills. And notice how I worded that: it’s not the technology that’s changing us, it’s us using technology to change us. Part of it is leaving behind things that we no longer need to do because we can use the technology to do it. For instance, we may have lost some of the refined skills of penmanship. But let’s not be too harsh on Mr. Dixon Ticonderoga; we have gained the ability to erase with the wonderful technology of the attached eraser. Seriously, though, digital technology may in fact have truly decreased our fine penmanship skills. But we’ve also gained the ability to access almost limitless amounts of information online with refined search skills. You can take my penmanship, I have access to the world. That’s a fair trade for me any day. It may help us disengage socially. So can other things like books. But like books, digital technology can give us access to so many things that can empower us to be exponentially more social.
Opposite Ends of the Spectrum
The inverse of the argument that more technology is better is that less technology is better. Believe it or not, there are small pockets of advocates of this type of thinking, with the goal of reducing technology use no matter what. Just as silly as the argument of “use technology just to use it” is the argument of “don’t use it so we don’t use it”. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing with it, less technology is just better. Some of these advocates even get political, frightening adults and mixing their own anecdotal research with other research that might be more legitimate, suggesting things like that the increase in amounts of special education referrals is a direct result of screen time — or at least implying that this is the case by carefully providing the research to parents that only includes studies on the effects of screen time on kids, at a vulnerable time when parents might be looking to lay blame. It’s an easy pill to swallow at that point: the devil is in the technology. And the agenda gets advanced.
But the devil is not in the technology. Technology has not caused the ills of society. The results of the choices of people with character shortcomings have, and that includes all of us. That is far from a good reason to take a step toward the Stone Age to correct it by foregoing technology. A wanton rejection of technology is a standing-still of humanity. Do we need to constantly analyze our use of digital technology? Most certainly, with the same level of introspection as our use of any other technology, strategy, or tool.
The fact of the matter is that technology, and especially digital technology, will not go away. Human ingenuity will continue to develop tools that make life easier for people. Adapting to this reality is the key to success for any person, not the least of which being the students in our classroom. Sure, there continue to be tragic realities of society, but people are developing technology to solve those things too. For instance, Apple recently developed tools to help drivers stay away from the temptation to read that text while they’re driving. I would guess most people have turned it off. They have the freedom to do so.
And that brings me to my final assertion: technology is about freedom. It’s about choice. It’s about adapting and manipulating your surroundings to suit your needs and solve your problems. Those who know less about technology and have less experience with technology are limited in their ability to do this. Those who know more have the freedom to choose the best technology to suit their needs, and can conform their environment to something that allows them to be the most productive. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it. That doesn’t mean they’ll use things responsibly. But they have the freedom to do so, and technology provides the means.