Roughly every other year, I have shared some thoughts, perspectives, and suggestions regarding technology in the lives of our children. Here again is this newest version of that conversation. As I reflected on the topic one snowy April day, however, I was struck by how rapidly this area and its latest trends evolve from year to year and even month to month. I see it in our classrooms with the tools our teachers use to further instruction. I see it with our students in the work (and mistakes) they make with the devices and software at their disposal. And I see it with my own children in how we communicate and how they spend their time. More than ever before, our children are considerably ahead of the vast majority of adults in their technological knowledge and skill sets. Yet their social-emotional and decision-making development has not evolved at a similarly accelerated rate. Therein lies the danger for them and the responsibility for us as parents and educators.
Though I have sometimes been accused (especially by my own children) of being a Luddite and Chicken Little when it comes to technology, I argue otherwise. Technology has proven to be an undeniably powerful and effective teaching tool in certain domains, and its possibilities for differentiated instruction are exciting and liberating. It certainly has broadened and sped communication, though I still question whether e-mail is a gift or curse. Medicine, business, and virtually every other professional field have been enhanced and made more productive thanks to technological innovations. And like it or not, it is here to stay and will be both a part of the future and a required skill set for our children. We should not and cannot stick our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.
Like a circular saw, however, technology in the hands of a nine- or thirteen-year-old is also a powerful tool that can be harmful, mishandled, and misused without proper supervision, training, and age-appropriate access. Just recently, for example, local and national media were abuzz about the latest anonymous posting application, “After School,” designed specifically for high school students to allow anonymous, uncensored postings of virtually any nature. Though far from the first or only app of this kind, many expressed shock and surprise that it was being misused by adolescents in hurtful, dangerous, and even illegal ways.
Why the shock? It has long been understood that the adolescent (and even early adult) brain lacks the fully developed frontal lobe to properly and completely manage impulse control and complex decision making. What has changed, however, is the size and reach of the circular saw in the hands of the child. Today, a student angry with a classmate can lash out inappropriately and impulsively on social media, hit the send button, and instantaneously involve literally and permanently the entire world in his/her misguided, hurtful moment of poor judgment. Similarly, a naive and insecure child today seeking “likes” can receive unintended feedback from thousands of peers and complete strangers about their looks, dress, and perceived value as a human being.
As I have said many times before, I do not profess to have the answers to these challenges, and I live them daily with my own children in my own home. Add to that the fact that individual family communication needs, values, and philosophies rightfully can differ, and it is obvious that no “one size fits all” answers exist. I do, however, believe some critical questions should be carefully and regularly visited by parents, and the honest answers should then be checked against your values, beliefs, and adult perspectives about what is best for children. Below are a few such questions, and I invite you to discuss them with your child and other parents. Please also note that further advice and resources regarding these topics are available on our website (www.st-annes.org) under Parent Resources, and our technology staff are always available to answer questions and offer suggestions.