Are Screens Really “Bad” For Kids?

Kids are spending too much time with digital screens.

At least they are according to some high profile studies, scary media stories about a tech backlash among “technologists” themselves, and many, many surveys of parents and teachers.

But what if they’re wrong?

In an interesting new book, “The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World”, Jordan Shapiro, a professor of philosophy and senior fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, argues that kids interacting with screens is just all part of growing up in a new age.

Shapiro draws on his understanding of history and centuries of philosophical thought to say that kids who spend hours engaged with devices are simply learning about and adapting to the world around them. It seems different from parents came of age but really is not.

Grown-ups are disoriented because, at first glance, today’s screen media seem personal and private. When kids are watching YouTube videos or playing video games, it feels like the devices are pulling them away from the family and into a cocoon. But also, in a paradoxical twist, the screens function like portals that transport kids out of the house, beyond the perfect picket fence, and into a vast public dystopian virtual reality. Hence, parents are confused. They don’t know whether their kids are too detached or too exposed. All they know for sure is that traditional home life feels out of order; things aren’t neat and organized.

This anxiety is understandable. But remember that new technologies will always beget new routines. Your job as a parent is not to stop unfamiliar tools from disrupting your nostalgic image of the ideal childhood, nor to preserve the impeccable tidiness of the Victorian era’s home/work split. Instead, it’s to prepare your kids to live an ethical, meaningful, and fulfilled life in an ever – changing world.

Shapiro is not saying that parents (and teachers) should just hand devices to the kids and walk away. Instead he offers some historical context of family life when dealing with other technologies and makes the case that parents can still guide their children without heavy-handed restrictions.

He simply wants parents to take a closer look at what is going on when kids are interacting with those screens and guide them in their use of devices, video games, social media, and the rest of the digital world. “Just say no” doesn’t work here either.

This is just a small part of what Shapiro discusses in the book, and you may very well disagree with some of his conclusions. However, his thoughts on the matter are something every adult who interacts with children should read and consider.

Alexa: Don’t Screw Up My Kid

Articles about new technologies in the general media usually fall into one of two categories: breathless, this-is-the-coolest-thing-ever puff pieces or those it’s-gonna-kill-you-if-you’re-not-careful apocalyptic warnings. Occasionally writers manage to do both at the same time, but that’s rare.

A recent piece in the Washington Post leans toward that second theme by letting us know right in the headline that millions of kids are being shaped by know-it-all voice assistants. Those would be the little, connected, always-listening boxes like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home that sit unobtrusively on a side table in your home waiting to answer all your questions. Or order another case of toilet paper.

Many parents have been startled and intrigued by the way these disembodied, know-it-all voices are impacting their kids’ behavior, making them more curious but also, at times, far less polite.

Wow. Must be something in a new study to make that claim, right?

But psychologists, technologists and linguists are only beginning to ponder the possible perils of surrounding kids with artificial intelligence, particularly as they traverse important stages of social and language development.

Siri 800x300

I would say we’re all beginning to ponder the possibilities, good and bad, of artificial intelligence. For society in general in addition to how it will affect children as they grow.

But are the ways kids interact with these devices any different from technologies of the past?1

Boosters of the technology say kids typically learn to acquire information using the prevailing technology of the moment — from the library card catalogue, to Google, to brief conversations with friendly, all-knowing voices. But what if these gadgets lead children, whose faces are already glued to screens, further away from situations where they learn important interpersonal skills?

I don’t think you need to be a “booster” of any technology to understand that most children, and even some of us old folks, have the remarkable ability to adapt to new tools for acquiring and using information. If you look closely, you might see that many of your students are doing a pretty good job of that already. And those important interpersonal skills? Kids seem to find ways to make those work as well.

Anyway, the writer goes on trying to make his case, adding a few antidotes from parents, some quotes from a couple of academics, and mentioning a five-year old study involving 90 children and a robot.

However, in the matter of how children interact with these relatively new, faceless, not-very-intelligent voices-in-a-box, there are a few points he only hints at that need greater emphasis.

First, if your child views Alexa as a “new robot sibling”, then you have some parenting to do. Start by reminding them that it’s only a plastic box with a small computer in it. That computer will respond to a relatively small set of fact-based questions and in that regard is no different from the encyclopedia at the library. And if they have no idea what a library is, unplug Alexa, get in the car and go there now.

Second, this is a wonderful opportunity for both of you to learn something about the whole concept of artificial intelligence. It doesn’t have to get complicated, but the question of how Alexa or Home (or Siri, probably the better known example from popular culture) works is a great jumping off point for investigation and inquiry. Teach your child and you will learn something in the process.

Finally, stop blaming the technology! If a parent buys their child one of these…

Toy giant Mattel recently announced the birth of Aristotle, a home baby monitor launching this summer that “comforts, teaches and entertains” using AI from Microsoft. As children get older, they can ask or answer questions. The company says, “Aristotle was specifically designed to grow up with a child.”

…and then lets it do all the comforting, teaching, and entertaining, the problem is with a lack of human intelligence, not artificial kind.

Who Is This Reform For?

Ask school “reform” advocates why, and they will eventually arrive at something like “we’re doing this for the kids”. It may come after the economic and geo-political reasoning but “the children” will be there somewhere.

However, I wonder if most school reform proposals are more about adults than the kids.

Too many adults view learning, at least at the K12 level, in very narrow terms. They have a vision of school that is firmly rooted in the classrooms they sat in twenty, thirty, forty years ago and they expect to see largely the same when they enter one today. Maybe a few computers or other technology, but the same curriculum and pedagogy that was good enough for them.

Charter schools, for example, rarely deviate far from the standard teacher-directed model of our memories. Some will add more of it in terms of an extended school day or Saturdays. But more is better, right? Plenty of practice is all that is needed to learn something. Just ignore the graft and corruption of public monies going on in the business office.

We certainly don’t want to change the century-old standard curriculum. Small shifts in the topics studied are ok but few reform proposals address whether the traditional subject silos – English, math, science, social studies, maybe “foreign” languages, art, PE – need to be modified. Or whether the walls between them need to be completely torn away and drastically re-thought for this “information” age.

Programmed/individualized learning? Standardized testing? We automate the production line and run regular quality control assessments to provide a more consistent product. Similar technology should work with school. Just ignore the fact that the “product” here are kids, and learning is a very personal, inconsistent, and messy process.

Merit pay, vouchers, value-add evaluation. Competition is good for business, many reformers know business very well, schools should be run like businesses, therefore all of these reforms that encourage “competition” must be good.

Don’t bother asking anyone with current teaching experience about all this. We need to standardize teachers as much as we do their instruction.

In addition to professional educators, there’s another important voice – the most important voice – completely missing from the school reform discussion: students. Current students, recent graduates, and especially kids for whom the formal school system didn’t work for one reason or another. We never ask them about how the experience could be change and then actually listen to them (as Will did recently).

As a result, changes to our education system are driven by adults, often ones in positions of privilege with little to no education experience beyond sitting in classrooms for decades, who know that learning in the real world is nothing like the structures and content they are proposing.

But they start with an assumption that the traditional school format through which they passed must be the correct one for kids twenty, thirty, forty years later. The familiar learning process from their childhood must the correct one for them as well.

So, tell me again, who is this reform for?

Healthy Skepticism

I’ve always been very suspicious of research related to human behavior. Especially anything related to kids and learning, which presents observers with far too many variables and unknowns to control for.

However, that lack of certainty doesn’t stop media outlets from reporting each “new” study, poll and survey as the definitive final word. Most often, the writer of those stories only read the excutive summary and knows nothing about any other research that had been done on that particular issue.

It turns out we all have good reason to be skeptical, both of the reporting and the original material.

Recently a group of researchers tried to duplicate the findings from 98 papers published in the top three psychology journals. Two-thirds of the findings could not be replicated.

And this is not a problem confined to psychological research: “30 percent of the most widely cited randomized controlled trials in the world’s highest-quality medical journals have later been found to be wrong or exaggerated and that number rises to five out of six for non-randomized trials”.

Does that mean we should not believe any research? Probably that’s too extreme. But here’s a great piece of advice.

Whenever you hear the words “new study,” alarm bells should ring. It isn’t new studies that you should base your opinions on; it is old studies that have been replicated again and again, and the results reported in meta-analyses and systematic reviews.

Some large scientific issues – evolution, the general age of the earth, climate change, for example – have piled up enough research over the decades and centuries to accept, even if new details are still being discovered).

But when it comes to studying human behavior, and the process of learning in particular, we as educators must be very skeptical of “new” research, and “treat every new claim not as a problem solved, but as an open question”.

Because We’ve Always Done It

From the latest edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, titled Think Like a Child, this exchange between the host Stephen Dubner and Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. They’re discussing the differences between the way young children and adults learn about the world.

DUBNER: Implicit in that is while we have this strong set of priors, right, prior beliefs that we act on. And also implicit in what you’re saying is we have a lot of heuristics, we have a lot of shortcuts that we’ve learned work well enough, and so we do them always, right?

GOPNIK: Exactly. Let me give you an example in the universities for example. It’s a good example, my world.  We give lectures. And the origins of that are the days when there weren’t printed books, so you had one manuscript and the professor was reading from the manuscript because the students didn’t have books. It is literally a medieval instructional technique. But we’ve been doing it for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s kind of what you do when you’re a faculty member. And the fact that we have no evidence at all–in fact, we have some evidence to the contrary–that this is a good way to get anybody to learn anything, doesn’t keep us from doing it. Mostly we’re doing it because we’ve always done it.

I’ve stashed that phrase “medieval instructional technique” away in my notes for later use.

Gopnik continues.

I think what they say is, ‘Well, we’ve kind of always done it, and it seems to work OK, and we’re good at doing it.’ And I think, here’s the most relevant thing: It would take so much work to try and think through all the alternatives, and try them out and see which ones work and which ones don’t. That would just be such an effort that, even if maybe in the long run it would be a bit of an advantage, in terms of my short-run utilities, and in particular, just for me, it’s not going to make a difference.

Think about it. That whole paragraph could describe the American education system, even after the reform efforts of most politicians and billionaires are applied.