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Beware of technology's negative effects on learners

By Antoney Luvinzu | September 18th 2021

Class one pupils from Getembe Primary school in Kisii township follow instruction from their ICT teacher during pilot programme of familiarization exercise with the tablets in 2016. [Denish Ochieng,Standard]

William Powers, the author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, describes our new technology-driven world as “a giant room, in which everyone is standing within reach of their neighbours.” From smartphones and social media to TV and tablets, the modern day learner is incessantly inundated by technology.

While it is important for children and teens to interact with, and develop an aptitude for technology, because they are probably going to use computers their whole lives, too much technology use can have detrimental academic, social, health and physical effects on the young ones.

The negative effects on children’s health run the gamut; from increased risk of obesity to loss of social skills and behavioural problems. Of course, this doesn’t mean parents/educators/schools need to ban technology entirely, but it’s important for parents to be aware of the potential adverse effects of technology on children, and develop strategies to limit their children’s screen time.

Exposure to violence

Technology has numerous deleterious effects on children. It harms attention spans, reduces self-soothing and self-regulation, hurts school performance, limits interpersonal interactions, stagnates physical activities, hampers emotional development, and increases aggression from simulated violence, often found in popular video games. Exposure to violence makes children and teens more likely to argue with peers and/or parents/teachers, and less empathetic too.

There’s an interesting trend in kids who have access to phones, gadgets, gizmos, and the internet at large. Such students tend to be inquisitive and even with interesting thought processes. The Philippine Star run an article on July 12, 2014 about how technology aids learners in their studies. According to it, the students depicted several improvements in their education such as independence and information gathering, collaboration, analytical reasoning, information evaluation and more engaging learning experiences.

By being connected to the internet, students learn how to do research, aided with the swathes of information that they access. Through exchange of ideas and messages, students are able to collaborate with each other to test their understanding of lessons. Information today is more engaging to the mind and the senses because of its multimedia nature.

However, these students tend to exhibit glaring gaps when it comes to basics skills like simple problem solving, critical thinking, social/communication skills, imagination, reflection, writing, spelling, and they can’t do simple arithmetic without a calculator. These skills particularly tend to be compromised/hampered when learners are neck deep into technology. It’s a common occurrence, especially in urbane/middle class families, to introduce kids at a very young age to technology.

Social skills

Writing is a part of nearly every job, however small or large a part it may be. Today, though, one of the most common complaints received from employers is that job candidates cannot write properly. With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged. As a result, many college graduates, despite being surrounded by text-based technology, leave universities without the skills to effectively communicate using the written word. The focus, some claim, is often too much on the technology and not enough on writing and communication skills.

Social skills, making eye contact, holding a conversation, and maintaining one’s attention span are just as critical as being able to communicate in written form, but these, too, are often lost or diminished as a result of technology’s reign in students’ lives. Picking up on social cues or showing that a person is invested in a present exchange, for example, are characteristics of healthy social awareness. However, students are more often invested in what’s on their social media sites, or in their text messages, than they are in human to human interaction.

To think critically means to sharpen and broaden one’s thinking. For instance, what must I evaluate, and in which context? How do I break a subject down for proper analysis? And finally, how did I come to my conclusion? These are all key steps in solving a problem and/or making a decision. Most adults may well know this, but for students who are engrossed in technology, these concepts may be all but lost on them. Why? Technology is often wrought with immediate gratification.

Click a button, and your answer appears. No need to evaluate or analyse. No need to think about one’s thought process. If, however, one was to engage with the process of problem-solving, it may serve them well to use a little imagination, a little creativity. What, for example, are the potential solutions to my problem, and how might I reach said solutions?

This type of hypothetical inventiveness and subsequent scrutiny is a skill that can rarely be found in front of a screen, though. Rather, it requires the ability to mentally multitask and often maintain deep and sustained thought engagement. This is often fractured by the fast-paced and ever-changing world of technology. If a problem has been solved, or a decision made, reflecting on the process is also a key step, one that ensures proper routing for future thinking. However, once again, due to the instantaneous nature of much of the technology coveted by students today, decisions and problems are here and gone in a moment. Technology moves on, and so do its users.

Thus, learning to reflect on one’s behaviours is a skill rarely developed by many students. So what can be done to engage these skillsets in our students once again? A conscious effort must be made to not only give them the technological skills they will need to succeed in a digital world, but to also fashion these efforts in a way that reflects real-world interactions, that is, with human beings, not screens and gizmos.

Time limits

Ariel Kalil, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of Chicago, understands that technology may have an impact on childhood development and is almost inevitable in the 21st century. Observation is the primary way children learn, as they listen to learn language, observe and mimic conversations, read facial expressions and watch how others navigate emotional situations. Too much severely hampers emotional development.

Parents and adults can help children get the benefits of technology with less of the negative effects. Parents can start by ensuring children under two don’t use, or seldom use screens. They can also play along with children to include face-to-face interactions with technology, and make sure that tech doesn’t interfere for opportunities to play. Parents should also work to set appropriate boundaries including time limits, and model good smartphone use. Cybersecurity software and systems can help ensure that kids stay safe while using technology.

Parents ought to be in the front line and be role models of screen use for their kids. They ought to educate themselves on electronics. For example, you can’t teach your child about the risks of social media unless you understand the dangers yourself. Likewise, you wouldn’t be able to prevent them from consuming certain types of media (such as violent video games) if you don’t understand how these forms of media are rated, how they tend to manipulate these young minds.

They can also utilise various strategies to limit kids from the negative effects of technology. Creating technology-free zones, setting aside times to unplug, limiting screen time, encouraging other activities which may be more interactive and making screen time a privilege rather than a right are just some of the ways to limit kids.

Encouraging your kids to buy into less screen time and screen-free zones will be much easier if you engage with them in a positive, fun, and authentic way. They’re more likely to resort to screen time to ‘escape’ if you are constantly reminding them about their messy room, or a difficult school assignment during no screen time.

Both parents and teachers can watch for quality apps that promote vocabulary, math, literacy, and science in a bid to make better use of technology. Adults can help make sure kids learn about computer science and IT as part of technology use to give them opportunities for a bright tech future. Technology should work for us, not against us.

The writer is IB educator [email protected]


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