Examining the Effects of Technology on Our Children

Examining the Effects of Technology on Our Children

Mohamed Naiem

Screen shot 2011-02-15 at 1.52.58 PM.pngOne of the most alarming issues educators and teachers discuss these days is the decrease of children's academic performance and the escalating aggressiveness among them. The scope of this awful fact has reached a dreadful point: teachers are only 'pushing' students from one grade level to another. In the meantime, electronic devices providing access to movies and video games that are full of sexuality and violence--intended for children-- are booming. As children's mental abilities (still in development) can be shaped by whatever they are exposed to, these digital devices, used mainly to entertain with movies and games, may have played a role in the wrong turn of children's education. In other words, the technological advance, that once was anticipated to enhance children's education, has turned out to be rather harmful to their cognitive and social skills development because technology marketers have set consumption, not education, as a main goal to electronic innovations. To investigate this matter deeply, I relied on works of renowned educationists in an attempt to raise awareness about this subject. Indeed, understanding how technology may harm some precious elements of our society, children, may draw parents' and teachers' attention so that they act to save kids before it's too late. To apprehend the topic at hand, I first explained what the basic objectives of children's education are. Second, I showed how technology may contribute in teaching and learning. Then, I detailed the harm the unguided use of computers and other consumption oriented technology tools may cause to children's health, behaviors, and education.

A/ Education is the tool by which children acquire literacy and develop cognitive and social skills.

I / Literacy has always been the basic aim of education throughout history.

Literacy, the ability to read and write (and count), has always been the prime concern of learning. Neil Postman (1994), the greatest cultural critic and the former chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University, states, in The disappearance of Childhood, that The Greeks and the Romans did create schools to teach children how to read and write. These schools had, indeed, played a notable role of spreading literacy to many parts of the world. After the fall of the Roman Empire and because of materials' scarcity, literacy became of interest to only few people, the wealthy and the Nobles. During the dark Middle Ages (form the fifth to the fifteenth century), people--in Europe--sank deep into the darkness of illiteracy and ignorance.  After all, they were able to communicate orally, which is learned naturally by the age of 7 with no need for formal instruction. Moreover, those who can read did it word by word without knowing the meaning of these words mostly. Some were even saved from death by hang for crimes they committed just because they were found able to read: "The said Paul reads, to be branded; the said William does not read, to be hanged" (Postman, 1994, p . 32). It was the invention of the printing press (by the German Johannes Gutenberg around 1440) that spread literacy, books, schools, and knowledge. Nowadays, all over the world, literacy and numeracy are taught in schools, and countries strive to make eradicating illiteracy an ultimate goal to their schooling programs.

 

II/ Education aims to develop children's cognitive abilities.

In this era of technology, individuals are more than ever required to gain, through education, useful technical skills to aspire to a decent life. As I stated above, in the Middle Ages, in England for example, just being able to read a sentence from the Bible may confer to a convicted criminal the privilege of being free of charge. In our time, literacy can't play this virtuous role (though many criminals may stay beyond the reach of law by other means of undeclared immunities: wealth, higher status, etc.). Moreover, Literacy alone can't bring considerable reward to literate people. According to official statistics, known to almost everyone, even highly skilled individuals (immigrants everywhere in the world for instance) may lead miserable lives if they are deprived of the right connections inside 'corrupt' systems. Therefore, literacy is not a final objective of education; it is a means to endow children, the luckiest of them, with specific technical abilities, which may help them fulfill their unrealistic dreams of being doctors (all of them, all at once).

 

III/ Education also aims to teach children manners and self-control.

The relationship between education and children sociability is a tow way process. First, according to the fundamental philosophy of childhood, educating includes teaching social skills too. John Locke (1632-1704) assured that children should be taught manners, shame, and self restraint as well as literacy (Postman, 1994, p. 57). Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), however, claimed that a child holds inherent talents to be protected from educating to manners (Postman, 1994, p. 57). These two theories were adamantly competing in America in the 19th century. Later, a view combining the theories of Freud and Dewey prevailed: the individual character and the curiosity of the child should be nurtured, but self control should be extended (Postman, 1994, p. 63). Second, Postman (1994) insists on the role of the self control in knowledge development. Acquiring literacy requires a "self-control and delayed gratification" (p. 88). He adds: "Manners, one might say, are a social analogue to literacy. Both require a submission of the body to the mind. Both require a fairly long developmental learning process" (p. 88).

From another angle, educational institutions in Canada, for example, have recently been advocating for teaching civility to students. Ontario ministry of education web site states:

Character development is embedded in teaching and learning in all publicly funded Ontario boards and schools - English, French and Catholic. It addresses the whole student as an individual, as a learner and as an engaged citizen, as outlined in Finding Common Ground: Character Development in Ontario Schools, K-12

Thus, educators agree on the importance of teaching positive behaviors to children both for their successful learning and their well being in society.

 

IV/Building environmentally friendly attitudes is another purpose of today's education.

In addition, education scope is extending beyond literacy, technical, and social skills. For example, in the light of the striking environmental challenges facing mankind, many educational programs aim to teach appropriate behaviors to preserve a clean nature and earth resources. According to the website of the ministry of education of Ontario, "if everyone lived and consumed like an "average Canadian", we would need four (or more) planet earths". A presentation destined to teachers, "enviroed", defines education's purposes in more pragmatic terms:

Education prepares students for "success." But if we consider that our definition of success means more (more education, competition in the workplace, better paying jobs, more ability to consume and acquire material goods, growing status, a life of comfort and convenience) - how does this success mesh with ecological

imperatives?

 

Educational systems should then respond to 'ecological imperatives' as another goal to achieve. In the same presentation, E.O. Wilson, Sociobiologist, adds: "A well informed, educated electorate is necessary to make the right choices for a sustainable world. Education is undeniably crucial."

In other words, public education should introduce not only technology to schooling, but the natural dimension too. Children should learn how central is to wisely consume natural resources and keep our soil and air clean. That's because the current educational policies in developed countries (and the rest of the world), explicitly or implicitly, teach to more growth and more consumption of materials. This situation can only nurture the environmental crisis through more pollution in the air and soil, more materials shortage, and more water scarcity, which may lead to wars over these precious resources. Thus, educating to a responsible exploitation of natural resources is the key to a better and peaceful life.

 

B/ Computers, as technological instruments, have made valuable contributions to children's education:

 

I/ Computers help student learn in schools.

Since their introduction to schools, computers have helped students tremendously. Through Appropriate online documentaries and movies they watch in class, children can see how abstract concepts work in real life. That's because kids grasp symbolic knowledge with ease when they visualize its real utility in real world. Before a scientific public exposition at a school where I was teaching, I used some online illustrations (in addition to concrete material) to explain to students, for the first time, the concepts of atoms and primary chemical reactions. I remember well how a grade five girl was able to understand and explain to visitors, in simple but scientific terms, the process of separating the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen in electrolysis. What is astonishing about this story is that this little girl was known to get the lowest marks in the class during years, and even her mother expressed her worry to me regarding this issue. That progress was the contribution of on-computer illustrations.

Computers can also play fabulous roles to help mentally challenged kids learn. Jane M. Healy, an eminent expert in educational psychology, recounts in her book, Failure to Connect, another touching story where Susan, a six-year-old child with a mental learning difficulty, used a computer program to learn sounds:

On the computer screen. . . an animated clown presents a game in which Susan must distinguish between simple sounds (in this case, "Pah" and "bah"). . . .Susan is enjoying her success. . . . Her parents are especially delighted, because Susan hasn't been smiling a lot since she started her first grade. (Healy, J. 1998, p. 155)

 

Thus, technology, if used properly, may help students progress in learning and even bring joy and gladness to many innocent hearts.

 

II/ Computers give students additional skills at home

Nowadays, computers extend learning opportunities to homes. In other words, "learning would take place where the computer is" (Monteith, M., 1998,   p. 79). As children enjoy using the magical machine, teachers can assign on-computers tasks, such as research or online exercises in different subject matters. As example, the school where I taught purchases access to a private Math networks' site where students can solve problems and compete, and the teacher can follow their progress and assess their learning. In a research about children's computer use in urban Sydney in Australia, Tony Downs states:

Many of the children interviewed described their home computer as a useful tool for doing school work . . . .[that included] projects, assignments, essays, book reviews, research, making notes, answering questions. . .finding the meaning of words, poetry, writing, spelling lists". (as cited in Monteith, 1998,  p 68)

According to Downes Reddaclif (1997) parents and teachers think that children need to know how to use computers  effectively to access information, as electronic media are taking lead over print resources (as cited in Monteith, 1998,  p. 75). However, in addition to mastering computer use, children should develop strong abilities to read books and produce acceptable handwriting. On other hand, Downes (1997) points out that some teachers think that children who possess computers may unfairly take lead over the rest of students. This argument doesn't stand because teachers should use a variety of strategies to help children learn what ever resources they have access to. That is, both print and electronic resources should be exploited effectively to enhance children's acquisition of knowledge and skills. (as cited in Monteith, 1998,  p 77).

 

II/ Computers help teachers accomplish their tasks effectively.

Undoubtedly, computers enable teachers to access rich resources for an effective teaching process. Dedicated teachers are always in quest of more reliable strategies to help students advance in their learning. For this purpose, technology can be of great service; teachers can use computers and internet to include:

A broader range of 'texts' and media within their literacy programs, including spoken, written, viewed performed and interactive texts . . . . Such work includes the use of technology beyond 'the book' and 'the computer' to include telephones, faxes, audiotapes, videotapes, broadcast television , the Internet and other computer networks. (Monteith, M., 1998,   p. 79)

In addition, since students learn better through meaningful contents (whose existence in real world is frequent and easily perceivable), teachers can exploit images and other visual aspects, children encounter online, to teach abstract meanings--the most challenging concepts for students. Besides, students in our era need to know that pictures carry meanings and are used to send messages, not only to entertain. Indeed electronic media rely on images more than on written texts to 'convey information'. Images of destroyed cities in war zones are destined to inform but also to stress the disastrous consequences of wars. Hence, a teacher, to teach and emphasize the importance of peace (an abstract word), can use a computer to display an image, which may truly be worth a thousand of words. That is how computers can help teachers incorporate electronic resources, in addition to traditional tools, in their teaching activities. 

From another angle, however, many drawbacks obscure the abundant advantages of technology on education. Experts claim that the unsupervised use of technological tools by children can carry many undesirable and lasting effects on the youth of today.

 

C/ Unguided Technology use may carry hazardous effects on children's health, psychology, and education:

 

I/ Long exposure to computers may affect children's health.

One consequence technology may have on children is the danger of overusing computers on their health. First, as Dr Jeffery Anshel, a Corporate Vision consultant, states in failure to connect "we are increasingly becoming an information society, and the price we are paying is our eyesight" (as cited in Healy, J. 1998, p. 112). Hence, spending long times focusing on screens is harmful to children's eyes. As a result, more children are wearing corrective lenses these days. You can make this remark if you compare this situation with that of a decade or two ago. Healy (1998) reports that many optometrists and experts in eye development he interviewed affirmed that "computer use is indeed creating problems in children developing visual systems" (Healy, J. 1998, p. 113). That is because staring at a computer for extended periods, without changing the vision direction or blinking, creates a strain on eye systems, which cause the "visual deterioration" to up to 90 percent of computer users (Healy, J. 1998, p. 113).

In addition to dangers on eyes, staying on a chair for long times may cause skeletal troubles to children. Specifically, what it might hurt children is the uncomfortable posture many kids sit in to reach the computer screen. They may, for instance, stretch their neck, sit on the edge of a big chair or bend over keyboards on their legs. These inadequate ways of sitting is reported to cause children the "video wrist" illness that causes pain in wrist and hands. Although these positions may hurt adults, particularly, causing them back or neck pain, parents are urged to take into consideration ergonomic tips to ensure their children a relax posture in front of computers. Furthermore, some scientists have drawn attention to the low-frequency radiations generated by computers. These intense emissions, "according to the Updegroves (of the University of Pennsylvania). . . can effect biological functions, including changes in hormones levels, alterations in building of ions to cell membranes, and modification of biochemical processes inside the cell" (Healy, J. 1998, p. 118), which is simply scary.  These are then some documented effect substantive exposure to computer may cause to children.

II/ Addiction to computers may cause pupils emotional and behavioral problems.

According to many educators, there is a certain correlation between spending long times on computers and emotional and social troubles some children may suffer from. To many parents, a child who sits isolated on a computer for long times is a genius, which is not true. Dr Healy tells a story of six-year-old Justin, whose parents supplied all sort of 'scientific' CD programs, thinking that dumping him with high level information would make his IQ remarkable and his life successful. Unexpectedly, this kid ended up having severe emotional and social troubles in the classroom, such us staying away from his peers and pushing them (Healy, J. 1998, p. 172). His teacher explained: "I really can't figure him out. . . . it's like he missed few steps in his development. The psychologist. . . told me she thought his social skills were about on the level of a three-year-old" (Healy, J. 1998, p. 172). In fact, what this kid missed is enough interaction with other children and adults during his first years, when he was confined to a computer. Indeed, this lack of interaction during the critical period, when children are developing their emotional, social, and cognitive abilities, may result in them having anti-social behaviors and attention deficit, among other mental complications. 

The causal relationship between early long exposure to computers and children's behavioral disorders is well established. When the teacher of Justin was asked by Healy whether spending long times on computers may have played a role in Justin's troubles, he added: "of course it does, and we are starting to see more kids like this. . . .[his parents] have got a very unhappy little boy, and I'm afraid they are in for big trouble" (Healy, J. 1998, p. 172). Because Justin's brain was affected when it was growing, Justin may suffer from repercussions for a long period of time, according to neurophysiologists (Healy, J. 1998, p. 175). Thus the extensive use of computer by children during the early school years may carry a real threat instead of enhancing the IQ. This IQ, in fact, counts for only the fifth of 'personal success'; social and emotional skills count for the rest, as Daniel Goleman (1998) concluded based on decades of research on intelligence. (as cited in Healy, J. 1998, p. 173). The case of Justin is neither unique nor rare and illustrates, like experts assure, how using computers for long hours may cause children extreme emotional and social problems.

 

III/ Computers' use may influence children's attention and motivation.

As many school psychologists affirm, spending long hours on computers may cause many children what I prefer to call the 'hollow' mind disorder. Healy reports some cases of children who, instead of having extensive interactions with family members during their early childhood, were used to stay in front of their screens playing those 'horrible' games by the hour. As a result, they may become lazy, disorganized, unperceptive of their failures, and uncaring about them (Healy, J. 1998, p. 182). Specifically, these kids suffer a "lack [of] --attention [and] motivation . . . .[that] can be influenced by electronic technology."(183)

Attention has three features: selective, response organization, and sustained attention. First, selective attention develops before age seven and enables a child to recognize selected sounds. Many children living in noisy homes, where loud media play all the day long, seem distracted all the time. They don't react to human voices adequately, which many teachers call "an epidemic of attention problems (Healy, J. 1998, p. 183). Second, response organization builds between ages seven and nine. It helps a child's brain, which learned where to focus, react in an organized way. Whereas some software, labeled "educational", themselves play the focus and the acting role, children loose the opportunity to learn to focus and respond through practice.  Third, the sustained attention, that is formed after age eleven, can keep a child focused even on less interesting stuff. Unfortunately, children who used to focus only on stimulating computer programs lose the ability to maintain the focus on something that requires a mental effort. (Healy, J. 1998, p. 184).

Then, motivation, the willingness to undertake new challenges, is built on components that should begin to manifest around the age of nine: autonomy and embracing learning goals instead of performance goals. Computers affect both of them in fact. First, autonomy gives children the feeling that they are capable of working and achieving on their own. Most of software rather perform many tasks for users and even gives them the possibility to avoid (through the: "cop out" button) tackling and thriving on hurdles. As Martin Seligman, a renowned expert on self esteem, affirms, children should experience the constructive sadness about light errors (Healy, J. 1998, p. 187). Otherwise, they would not be able to autonomously and effectively face real-world difficulties when they materialize. Second embracing learning goals instead of performance goals, makes the learning itself, not the reward-- after the performance--a central objective. Children who engage an effort to learn just to win a prize, a trait to which most of computer games educate unfortunately, could not invest time and and energy to solve problems just to foster their skills if no immediate material recompense shines in sight.

D/ Other aspects of technology lead to anxiety, savagery, and mediocrity among children:

I/ Video games, Internet, and TV surround kids with fear and may make them monsters.

Television, video games, and Internet are filling children's mind with horrible violence and lasting fear these days. Shooting, punching, stabbing, raping, slapping, car chasing, and explosions are daily and commonly displayed on different kinds of screens children are hooked to. According to the US Center for Media and Public Affairs, as reported by the web site turnoffyourtv.com "serious acts of violence--murder, rape, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon--occurred once every four minutes on the major TV networks." This fearful violence shown to children day and night does have a strong and lasting effect on children's brain. These horrors continuously bombarding children may plant seeds of fear and engraved it in their minds. Dr David Elkind, professor of child development at Tufts University, states in The Hurried Child: "Shortly after the story of the young mother who had drowned his two sons by driving the family car into a pond, I began receiving phone calls from worried mothers all over the country. . . . Their children were asking them questions like, "Mommy, are you going to drown me?" (p. 79)

Arguably, the fear and violence that invade kids' minds will last for a long time, if not for their whole life. That's because a child's brain has not yet reached its 'immune' mature state and, therefore, remains vulnerable to such a 'dirty' input.

In addition, as shows exhibiting torture and death incite to aggressiveness, many kids end up committing abominable crimes, sometimes just to taste a wrongly depicted pleasure of attacking others. These shows never demonstrate the dreadful consequences of violence. On the contrary, they always portray the killer as a hero who at the end reaps the benefits of being a killer--seizing a treasure or grabbing a terrific women. Truly, we've become a society that gratifies criminals, at least apparently, and idolizes wildness. That s in the string of a violent environment that many children committed crimes, which psychologists attribute clearly to the cruelty portrayed on screens. This cruelty is learned, not innate. As the web site turnoffyourtv.com affirms "What a child learns about violence, a child learns for life," states ACT Against Violence" . Hence, in absence of insightful supervision and guidance, children may grow with scared mentalities or become monstrous 'mad Maxes'.

 

II/ Video games, movies, and TV also invite children to premature sexuality.

In addition to violence, technology media promote immature sexual behaviors among youngsters. First, television, and all technological screens, use advanced inventions to present seductive girls-rarely boys- in the most suggestive looks possible. This well worked out sexism keeps youngsters, especially, at a high level of sexual excitement, which, at least distract them form their learning. As explained in the first section, learning requires students to have a certain control on their sexual impulses. The media, however, "encourages sexual expression at just the age children should be learning some healthy repression" (Elkind, 2001, p.95). Another way media films nurture children early sexuality is the exhibiting the real-life sexual conduct of actors and actresses. In fact, youngsters consider these so called 'stars', ironically, idols and role models to emulate, especially in regard to their inferior escapades and eroticism. Such eroticism is even directly available to kids online and on cell phones these days, in addition to indecent X-rated films. This is how technology media drag youngsters into immature sexuality, and this is how many of them become children-parents, with no parental preparedness, or catch fatal sexual diseases.

III/ Extensive use of electronic devices produces less skillful children.

With digital gadgets at their disposal, children no more engage in serious effort to improve their academic performance. Parents, nowadays, can't resist the temptation of buying whatever their children ask. If you ask any of them for raisons of doing so, the main answer would be to spare the pupils the humiliation of being out of the bandwagon. At least, those who began this trend of blindly buying their kids whatever exists in the market can't give this answer. I've explained how children, according to Postman (1994), have lost control over their impulses--immediate gratification at this level--under influence of technology media. Hence, they should not be blamed if they adamantly ask for appealing electronic products, parents should. However, regardless of who to blame, under the effects of being highly distracted by all these mind distorting gadgets, children no more invest time and energy to learn. As Postman states,

"we do know, of course, that the capacity of the young to achieve "grade level" competence in reading and writing is declining. And we also know that their ability to reason and to make valid inferences is declining as well. Such evidence is usually offered to document the general decline of literacy in the young."(p. 132)

The decline Postman talked about in 1994 has become clearly unarguable, at least in the region I'm living in. Teachers, more than everyone, admit this undeniable fact, and educational institutions invest considerable resources to face the mediocrity among children who, even, end up dropping schools at an alarming rate. This decline in children achievement can, mostly, be attributed to their focus on these alluring electronic tools more than on their learning.

 

E/ Marketers seek profit through education and educate children to consume.

I/ Often, Profit underpins advertising or selling many educational hardware or software.

Whenever electronic corporations make decisions to equip schools with the last technological inventions, be sure they don't care about the usefulness of their products, they only want to sell. Larry Cuban (2001) states "Some promoters within the coalition seek profit from selling equipment and software in the schools market; others seek a swift solution to horny problems that historically have crippled education" (p. 12). The 'others' who are concerned about education matters are educators, obviously, but they don't have the last word as to which products meet the educational needs, marketers have. At this level, I let you figure out the outcome of investing the wolf with watching over the herd. Indeed, some educational experts recognize the inappropriateness of hardware and soft ware sold to Head Start: "one expert empathetically said that the software programs available then for young children were "limited and unimaginative" and unequal to the "rich and complex experience of children's play"" (Cuban, 2001, p. 60).

Another example of seeking profit under the cover of educational purposes would be the educational portals that group academic sites. In fact, these sites, suggestively, facilitate access to commercial websites, and make access to educational sites hidden and tedious.

"Although ZapMe! Content editors provided prominent links to "The BlackMarket.com" (offering products, services, and features stories for the African American community) and the "kwanzaa Information center (sponsored by the MelaNet Marketplace), The NAACP [the most prominent African American organization: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] was noticeably absent" (Fabos, 2004, p. 64)

Marketers then, often, target schools and the youth under the cover of educational goals to do their job, selling.

II/ Technology media orient children to consumption.

Advertising accessible on TV--and other electronic tools--intentionally work on creating loyal consumers out of children. In other words through images, children process information easily, get allured to their desires, and engage in an endless cycle of buying the last marks of electronics. That's because, unlike words that should be translated into mental images in order for children to understand them and process their messages, the images 'are already there'. Their understanding doesn't require high level of cognitive abilities (like those of adults). With images then children " have access to news, drama, and entertainment without having to translate words into images" (Elkind, 2001, p. 80). Images have special appeal to kids, which is well understood and exploited by marketers, as Elkind details:

-Children consume forty hours of media a week and 20 000 commercials a year.

-Corporations spend more than $ 12 billion a year marketing to children--well twenty times the amount spent ten years ago. . . . .

-The most frequently advertised and best selling toys [including electronics] are linked to media. . . .

-Children are more vulnerable to advertising than adults [as ads appeal on emotions, not thinking].

-Advertisers work with psychologists to develop marketing strategies aimed at children. (Elkind, 2001, p. 86)

Though children are visually oriented, music too has a strong influence on children orientation. Obviously, loud and frenzied music orients children to ferocity and rudeness and makes them lose control over the impulses of aggression (Postman 1994). Moreover, the power of music on conscious or unconscious (subliminal) level of awareness has long been established. Technology marketers play on this string too, when they target children. You may notice very appealing video clips, with irresistible songs, advertising cell phones and other gadgets and featuring children in extreme pleasure with these electronic tools. In this way, technology media have succeeded in their effort to make children blind consumers.

 

Conclusion:

To conclude, we have seen how technology, being in the grip of mindless consumption promoters, is slanted against children's education and well-being these days. Consequently, many children perform poorly in schools or drop school at a young age. Many of them smoke, take drug s or, even worse, end up grabbed by street gangs or prostitution networks-the case of mainly young girls. This sad reality is not the fruit of my imagination; each day 7 children disappear in Quebec as enfant-retourquebec.ca published. Most, if not all, of them, were prepared to disappear-by technology media that orient to frenzy, drugs, and wildness. Some citizens in Montreal-region, not even educators, have noticed this danger and began visiting schools, raising awareness among youth and parents. Believe it or not, powerful as they are, they were attacked by gang members in different ways. What I can't understand is the official indifference displayed by governmental institutions. Though if they can't impose ethical norms on technology marketers, since these marketers promote the economy-apparently, they should, nevertheless, raise awareness among the population and help parents protect their offspring. The burden then remains on parents' and educators' shoulders. They should elaborate a strategy to prevent the negative effects of technology on children. A strategy that, practically, convince the youth of the dangers- around the technology corners- and gives them pleasant alternatives, so that they can play, physically explore the world around them, and progress on the learning path.

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