Children and Communication Technology

I got asked an interesting question by one of my students the other day: What do you think about children and communication technology (smart phones, laptops, PCs, etc)?

We had been talking a bit about connective devices and the way it has changed education from our day. He’s a bit older than me, a doctor, has two kids, knows that I have two myself, and his views are pretty conservative on the topic. His kids are older than mine (approaching double digits in age), so I think he knows that this issue is one that he’ll need to confront sooner or later.

His main concerns are about safety and control – he feels like he can’t always know what (or, who) his kids might be exposed to, and he would feel unable to control how they use their devices. He didn’t expand on his opinion so much, because of language restrictions, stating basically that he wanted to hold out on getting them their own laptop or smart phone for as long as possible. Interestingly, my wife shares the same opinion as my student, except for different reasons. She believes that children need more space to work through problems on their own – they shouldn’t always rely on adults or technology to show them the answers, and don’t always need such close supervision. They learn and grow into better people when they are forced to problem solve on their own. Even for extreme situations like confronting dangerous strangers or bullying, she believes the best way to teach kids is through social interaction with peers, and empowering kids by placing them in various situations in which they can excel.

On the flipside to this perspective would be those who think that children need to be exposed to technology early and often. I remember a video (sorry, can’t find it now) I saw a year or two ago of an elementary school child exclaiming to the camera (the video was produced, not candid) that teachers need to prepare students like him for the future, or else they weren’t doing their job as educators. The message was clear: teach kids latest technology, teach them a lot, and at a fast pace, and through a high level of technology – we have to get them ready for the future, high-tech world.

I even think the pro-technology side has a version of reasoning similar to my wife’s. Teachers provide students with the means to connect, communicate, create and then back-off, letting them do as they wish with the idea that they will learn more by figuring out the technology for themselves, and by finding ways to accomplish and create goals that suit them, and make sense to them.

My wife thinks I disagree with her, but actually I disagree with both sides. Not introducing children to technology will only make it more difficult for them to learn it later on. It’s true, they aren’t growing up in the world I grew up in, they need to grow up in their world. Waiting too long can put children at a disadvantage and maybe even make them feel uncomfortable in their own generation. On the other hand, providing too much, too early promotes a view of technology as a progression, viewing past technology as inherently inferior to modern ones. This view promotes behavior like in the Bendito Machine video. This view forgets that children are the ones who develop progressively, not technology.

One of the advantages of latest technology, I answered my student, is that now we are seeing many of the functional and access gaps between devices filling in. It’s not a question of letting my son or daughter have a smartphone or not, but in what way can I lead them up to autonomous, and responsible use of such a device. And, even more than ‘responsible use’, there’s a judgment call I need to make (as with many parental decisions) as to what kind of technology use do I want to encourage in my son and daughter that I think will give them the most potential for happiness.

I gave the example of the kids-phone I’ve been seeing more of lately. One of my 6 year old students has one of these, it’s limited so she can only call her mom with it at any-time, and her mom can call her (there may be some sort of emergency call feature built into the physical design of it, as well). This is a great way to introduce kids to technology, not to mention the main purpose of increased safety for the child. She can walk the 7 minutes to my house, and her mom can call her once or twice along the way, if she feels the need to. Maybe in a few years there are certain restrictions on the phone that can be unblocked (texting to her family?), or a more advanced phone that she can get, gradually exposing her to more complex connective technology that she’ll eventually need to be familiar with.

When we can scaffold at increasingly smaller gaps, we are able to fine tune development potentials. And without such scaffolding, we’re not building on the knowledge of the past. It’s part of the education liberation, not shift, that has taken place over the past generation, a distinction that hopefully hasn’t been (although, lately I’m losing faith) lost on the technology-for-a-young-age advocates. This stepped progression builds tools in children – they learn to write letters, to write words, sentences, styles of penmanship or calligraphy, they learn not to nod when talking on the phone because the other person can’t see you. As they grow older they learn typing, how to form arguments, shorthand, academic writing, manners for texting, emails, blogs and microblogs. They become multi-literate, in a full sense, able to create an ecology of connections that features access to distributed interaction from any age, not just their own. They learn that technology doesn’t replace, it adds to existing. It’s a point as simple as knowing that e-books, as convenient as they are, will never extinguish paper books because…kids love books.

It’s situational. When technology use suits what is already there, it works – and not only does it work, it teaches kids this important point about technology: use it to suit it to what is already there.

I often think about setting up a facebook account for my 5 year old daughter. She’s not overly interested in computers, but we watch some things, she sits with me at the screen once or twice a week, maybe. I’m worried that if I set up a FB page for her she’ll develop a tendency to sit at the screen more, and on summer days and at times when she would be better off (happier) doing other, kid-like stuff. So, why do I consider it? Well, for one, I think Facebook is kind of like networking, or interneting, with training wheels – it shows some of the ways in which we can communicate at an easily controllable speed and manner. For another, we live on the other side of the world from a lot of her family and a lot of my close friends. She doesn’t get to interact with them, they don’t know her in any intimate, daily way. This is why I think it would be a useful addition to her life. It’s part of the situation.

My wife, also part of the situation, thinks differently…so we’ll probably find a compromise and wait a while. And, I’m happy with that – there’s enough for her to learn out there that isn’t mediated through an iPad screen.

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