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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

When I was a kid, the main reason my mom limited our television time was x-rays. Back in 1968, when I was seven years old, the same age my daughter is now, a big study on radioactive emissions from cathode ray tubes had just come out, and so our new color Philco had become the enemy. My brother and I had to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and the NY Jets win the Super Bowl from 15 feet away, in the corner of the room diagonally opposite from the set.

Today, we don't even have a single screen from which to protect our kids, or a threat as immediately visceral as cathode rays to neutralize. Interactive screens are everywhere. They invite an ever-expanding array of modes of participation, states of consciousness and exposure to manipulation. Worse, the era of big budget studies to measure media's effects is over; the only ones spending money to learn about the impact of this stuff are marketers, and they're not concerned with quite the same things that parents are.

Making matters even more complicated for concerned parents, our kids seem to know more than we do about the devices they use and virtual places they hang out. We feel like immigrants in a digital landscape where our kids are natives. Who are we to tell them how to behave, when to log-off and what not to do?

We're their parents, that’s who. And while we may not have spent as many hours watching iCarly, txting about Justin or raiding in Warcraft, we are still responsible for their physical, emotional, intellectual and neurological wellbeing, and still more than capable of becoming competent stewards of their highly digital life journeys.

Evolving Media, Evolving Roles

I have been studying and pondering the impact of digital media on people of all ages since the mid-'80s -- long before I had my own offspring to worry about. As these technologies emerged in the 1970s and '80s, I found myself inspired by them. They heralded a new relationship to the television screen, which had always been dominated by advertisers and the sorts of programs that reflected these advertisers' values. Interactive technologies, from video games to entertainment software, seemed informed by a completely new sensibility. In part, this was because these technologies cost money; they weren't sponsored by advertisers looking to sell something, but had to sink or swim on their own merits in the marketplace of entertainment.

Further, the mere introduction of interactive elements changed a young person's orientation to media: there were now choices to make. Instead of just following a character, a young person could be that character. Instead of entraining passivity, these new sorts of electronic entertainment encouraged different sorts of activity.

But as new media became more profitable, they also became big business. Companies competed to create the most addictive experiences and interfaces they could possibly make. And larger media corporations began using video games and web sites as mere extensions of their bigger brands and franchises. As the innocence of interactive media gave way to the experience of corporate media, whatever I had wanted to believe about interactive media itself became overshadowed by the greater media environment in which it was being created and distributed.

Accordingly, my views have slowly shifted from unbridled optimism to despairing pessimism to informed pro-action. These technologies may be here to stay, they should help us all in the long run, and we have no choice but accept their omnipresence in our kids' world. That said, we're in a position to actively influence the role these technologies have in their lives, create informed media users, and mitigate much of the potentially detrimental social and cognitive effects.

I freely admit that many of today’s conclusions will be disproved by tomorrow’s research. Even if you don't accept all of these guidelines as appropriate in your situation (you know more about your values, goals and kids than I do), I hope they will encourage you to think of yourself as the one capable of developing the domestic digital media policy for your home. Having no policy is still a policy.

Age-Appropriate Development

To begin with, all screens may be different, but they're still screens to young children. On a most rudimentary level, this means they either depict two-dimensional realities (like cell phone interfaces and sideways-shooter arcade games) or use their 2D displays to depict 3D realities, such as TV shows. No biggie -- except for babies and toddlers, whose ability to understand and contend with 3D worlds is still in development. They don't fully understand the rules of opaque objects (that's why peekaboo behind a napkin poses endless fascination), so high quantities of time spent sitting in front of 2D screens may actually inhibit some of their 3D spatial awareness. That's why so many pediatricians recommend that kids under the age of two probably shouldn't watch any TV at all.

Given that we live in a real world of two working parents, showers to be taken and dinners to be made, I'd say the compromise position is 20 minutes twice a day -- but permitting only DVDs designed for kids, with:

  • Good, long scenes they can try to make sense of with their little brains
  • Nature they couldn't see otherwise
  • Optical development exercises
  • Early vocabulary

And no, they can't sit next to Junior while he watches Lego Star Wars.

In my opinion, the same goes for interactive devices, like an iPad or Nintendo DS, up until children are seven or eight years old. There's so much else for them to learn about first. Like gravity. Human individuals tend to recapitulate the history of civilization as they grow up. Infants are like monkeys, babies like cavemen, toddlers like Biblical characters, and so on. We learn to grunt, speak, write, make videos and program computers in about the same order as our ancestors who developed these new media.

Little kids play with balls, seesaws and slides as they develop their vestibular senses, and come to learn about the wonders of gravity. They move on to Frisbees, bikes and Hula Hoops as they explore angular momentum and harmonic motion. The weightless world of a digital game or virtual environment fascinates us for the way it defies the rules of the real world; until we are firmly anchored in the former reality, however, these new principles are not neurologically compatible with a developing sensory system. Up and down, light and dark control a whole lot more in human biology than we might like to think. Best not to fool these feedback mechanisms before they have a chance to come online in a developing child.

A pinball machine may no less addictive than Moshi Monsters, but at least the context in which it invites its obsessions is that of the physical world -- a place kids must learn to navigate before they are equipped to venture into virtual ones.

In my next post, I'll cover some approaches for technology at home for older kids.

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Douglas Rushkoff's picture
Douglas Rushkoff
Digital Literacy Advocate - Codecademy

I don't know that starting with "rubbish" is the very best conversation startet, but to your point, I guess we differ. I absolutely agree that any parent can prevent their kid from using electronics. But unless you're content to living with the Amish, your kids will be living in a world infused with this stuff. Sorry, but it's everywhere! There are even TV ads on some school buses. Choosing to prepare them for survival in a digital landscape is not about surrendering to Obamacare or socialism; it's about raising literate people.

I totally get that parents can rigidly control their children. In a digital media environment, however, I don't know if keeping children away from everything digital is necessarily the best path to their future success - particularly teens or even college kids. But that's your decision. I thought I was coming off as overly guarded in this piece; it's interesting to see there are still parents who hope to shield their kids from all electronics, rather than guide their experiences of these powerful tools.

As for specific sources, the American Pediatric Association did some good work (or published the work of others) on the relationship of flat screen use to spatial development in kids. Judith Van Evra's book has some good studies. I'll look for some more, but you can get pretty far on Google scholar.

And yes Melanie, I think young needs have so much real world, 3D experience to get in those first few years that screens really should have a very limited role.

Kerry K.'s picture
Kerry K.
High school mathematics teacher from Spartanburg, SC

Mr. Rushkoff,
I really enjoyed reading your post. I have two children, a three year old and a nine year old. It drove me nuts at first, seeing my children sitting for hours playing those annoying (to me anyway) video games (Nintendo DS, Leapster). My thoughts were that they were not getting enough exercise. As a result, I began limiting their time on these technologies and ensuring that they spend plenty of time outside playing. I do not however want to take these technologies away from my children. I want my children to be able to work with and experience new technologies. This preparedness stems from practicing with technology. In fact, at Christmas, both girls received new technology (an Innotab 2 for the three year old and a tablet for the nine year old). It is my responsibility as a parent to ensure that my children know how to navigate technology in a responsible and ethical way.
Technology is here and is not going away. We need to accept it, learn it, and embrace it. I teach school and I see more and more technology creeping in every day. With this technology comes more rules such as "no cell phones in school." Also, along with this technology comes more possible problems such as cyber bullying, but these emerging technologies also bring great options for education. I hear teachers complain all of the time about how technology makes things too easy for students. I agree, it does make things easier, but that only means that we now have more opportunity to take our students learning to a deeper level because we do not have to focus on many of the miniscule tasks that the technology can do for us.
I realize that your post is geared towards small children, but children (over three years of age) need to begin to experiment with technology so that they can be better prepared to experience newer technologies later in life (my nine year olds school already encourages the children to bring their e-readers and tablets to school). I do agree that we need to introduce this technology carefully. We need to limit children's time spent on these technologies and ensure that the majority of their free time is spent on outside play. We also need to talk to our children and advise them on how to navigate the on-line environment appropriately, responsibly, and ethically. Then, we need to just hope and pray that we have done our jobs well enough that our children grow up to be responsible members of a very technological society.
Kerry K.

Pat Hammond's picture
Pat Hammond
Driving Educator, Texas

You're not alone if you sometimes worry about how much time your young child spends in front of a screen. Whether they're at a computer or watching TV, it's hard to know what's for the best.

Some people say that using a computer is harmful and that too much time in front of a computer or TV screen is a bad thing. Others say that computers, DVDs and TV shows can help with learning numbers and letters so they're good for helping children get ready for school.

There's no definitive piece of research that proves that looking at a computer or TV screen is either good or bad for young children, so it seems safe to say that using technology in moderation is the key.

M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

It's tiresome to expect teachers to compensate for failed parenting models. Parents cannot control or discipline their kids at home so they rely on electronic babysitters to do their work for them. Many teachers do the same thing. Stick a device in their laps and allow them to be mesmerized for a few hours with the hopes that they'll learn something meaningful and be able to retain that learning for the long term. I still challenge the educational community to cite how training generations of gadget supplicants in the classroom will generalize to real life. How will a person needed to repair automobiles, build homes, fix leaking plumbing, serve food and beverages in restaurants, i.e. those necessary blue collar jobs that are the backbone of a society, benefit from playing with an iFad or learning "code"??

I don't believe everyone is going to be (or want to be) a website developer or the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.

We need more people do learn to to do the dirty work. Our schools aren't thinking about that. That's not in the "21st Century Innovation" playbook.

Kerry K.'s picture
Kerry K.
High school mathematics teacher from Spartanburg, SC

I agree that it is very inappropriate to simply place technology in student's hands and have them simply peruse it for "a few hours with the hopes that they'll learn something meaningful." That is not the purpose of incorporating technology in the classroom. The purpose is to allow the student to apply the technology to help solve a problem. This should help all students in the future, even those in blue collar jobs. Automobiles are advancing in the area of technology as well as the rest of the world. Builders look at blue prints on computers as well as on paper. Most restaurants use computers for entering orders. All of these jobs require some computer skills. There are also many sites that people use to market themselves to future employers. As an educator, I can tell you that I am not trying to push traditional education and values off to the side. I only wish to try to prepare my students as well as possible to be successful members of society.

Michelle Mista's picture
Michelle Mista
Homeschooling parent & family technology advocate

As lifetime tech geek and the mother of a four year old daughter, the past five years have been among the most exciting of my life. Both technology usage and my daughter have grown by leaps and bounds.

As a concerned parent, I've been trying to formulate the "right" thing to do when it comes to exposing my daughter to technology but as an unabashed geek about everything technology, I've also been excited to share it with her.

Yet according to experts, despite the fact that we literally have the world of information *in our pockets* -- and that NEVER fails to awe me -- we're supposed to raise our children to be Luddites for their own good?

... wait, what?

Do we face a possible epidemic of having our children become mindless drones, attached to tiny little screens? If that's how we're teaching them to use technology, then yes. In my opinion, what we're really afraid of as parents is that kids will use all this awesome technology the way most of us do -- as mindless entertainment. We're blaming the technology for how *we* use it.

If we want to teach kids to be tech smart, then we, as parents, have to be tech smart as well. Teach kids to use technology not just as entertainment but as the research tool that it can be. The argument I most often hear against allowing kids to use technology is that it keeps them from doing other things. Here's the thing: it doesn't have to.

By all means, let children use technology. But teach them to use it wisely. Set limits, set expectations and most importantly, *sit with them* and use it *with them*. That's the most important thing to keeping a child engaged and rooted in the real world.

natalie belser's picture

I agree with your blog. . . Technology has become a distraction for youths from education. However, it can also be used to enhance student's learning. For instance, students with difficulties reading can be given a software that is tailored to their own particular skills. This will enable all students to leanr, regardless of their abilities. There is software for mathematics, spelling, social studies, and history. As long as parents and teachers carefully monitor students on the interenet and use the techonology for mostly learning, students will excel. Also, there can be games incorporated with the learning activities.

Kimberly Montalvo's picture
Kimberly Montalvo
Working on my masters in teaching and certification

I have worked with young children for many years, first as a preschool lead in a child development center and now as a kindergarten teachers assistant, plus I have two children of my own. I do not have anything against technology, but I agree that there should be age or at least time limits set on the use of electronic devices by young children.

I had a little boy in my preschool class who had his very own iPad. This little boy also spent 3 hours a day, 4 days a week at a developmental preschool because he did not speak. I worked in conjunction with the PSCD teacher to help this child, but his parents were no help at all. The iPad was/is his babysitter. In a meeting we had with the parents, dad said that he did not care if his son could not speak because his use of the iPad showed that his cognitive abilities were above average.

I now work at the school where the PSCD classroom is located, so I still see this little boy; he will be 5 in a few months and still has extremely limited verbal skills. As a mother and as someone who cares for this child, this situation makes me furious, but what can one do?

Kim's picture
Third Grade Teacher

I also agree with your blog. Technology should never be the babysitter and should be limited in application according to the developmental level of the child/student. There is no substitute for human interaction, meaningful conversation with adults, and structured and unstructured play interaction for children's cognitive development.

Electronic media should be adult guided for children, and monitored.

JulieMartin's picture

Research concerning children and the use of technology is still in it's early stages, experts are already finding evidence that technology could be affecting the development of children both socially and overall mental capabilities. Children having frequent interactions with devices are exhibiting issues such as a limited attention span, less social interactions, practical reasoning skills as well as linking the rising number of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) cases. Research has led experts to believe that very young children that are overly exposed to technology is changing the way their brain functions and has attributed to many children becoming developmental delayed. Being that technology is here to stay and plays a key role in school as well as at home entertainment, experts are asking parents to limit at home technology use. They also urge the importance of one on one interactions, imaginative play, reading books, as well as children taking time to discover the world around them. If there is balance between these developmental skills and technology, children can better benefit the tools that technology provides.

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