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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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An illustration of a hand chained to a smartphone.

Restaurants and public places in Ireland are loud. They looked so different from the United States -- full of people laughing and talking to one another -- that it took me several days to figure out just what I was seeing. Actually, it was what I wasn't seeing. As we traveled through Ireland, families and friends met each other for dinner or coffee just like we do here in the States, but without one thing. Their cell phones weren't out. No one was texting. No one was taking selfies. They were with each other. . .

. . . except in one place -- the McDonalds.

The moment I stepped into this U.S.-based food franchise, I felt like I was back in the States. That's where I found Irish people who were eager to be like Americans, or perhaps just Americans in Ireland doing what Americans do at home. In McDonalds, it wasn't so loud. A lady ran into me as she texted. Another mom forgot about her restless child on the seat as the kid crawled onto the floor and ate an old fry. All of the people in that McDonalds had their minds somewhere far from the here and now as they texted, took selfies, and shared pics. They were together apart.

But everywhere else in Ireland, I felt like I was back in the 1980s before cell phones and handheld games started creating the personal entertainment bubble. When we got home, we all said that the best part of the trip was that we had committed to keep our phones in airplane mode the whole time. We were together. Really together.

Not Paying Attention

Several years back, I had a car wreck. There was only one person who could give a statement to the police. Do you know why? Everyone else was on a cell phone and said they "weren't paying attention."

The woman who hit me was playing with her dog. Fortunately, my son's life was saved on that rainy day because I was paying attention when that other driver ran the red light.

There are people living without moms and dads and children today because a text message was more important than their very life. Ask each of us, and we'll tell you that our kids or our own lives are more important than that text message. But what we say means nothing. What we do means everything. And what we're doing is foolish.

Let's Be Human Beings

I've seen students come to school exhausted because a friend couldn't sleep and started texting them at 2AM. Technology isn't improving our lives because we're not using it -- it is using us.

We need time to be human beings, not just human doings. And when we do things like spend time with our families or friends, we need to really be there.

I'm not a Luddite, and in fact, I really adore most technologies. But not when it is costing us lives and relationships, and hurting our grades in school. I often wonder if Pavlov's dogs have come in a new form -- a version that walks on two legs and uses its thumbs. We humans seem to salivate at every status update or text message. Are we so eager to feel important that we're forgetting what or who is most important?

As we look at 2015, my biggest hope for all of us is that we can start to see the amazing things and people right in front of us. Let's use all of our wonderful technology to improve our lives. Let's not allow it to keep us from living our lives.

As for my time in Ireland, I think that perhaps the luck of the Irish is to have places where people put away their phones and take the time to look in the eyes of their family and friends. If we do that, we may feel quite lucky, too.

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Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Great points, Laura. In the Digiteen project, we called this "digital health and wellness" and worked to teach about addictive behaviors. I've seen numbers as high as 36% of Americans who are addicted to their smartphones. My grandfather always said "everything in moderation" and as much as I love technology, putting it down sometimes is important too - especially when you've got someone right there in front of you who needs your attention.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Yes, Corrie Sharp! I think, for example, charging phones in the kitchen is a good idea. If you read about the danger of wifi enabled devices being near the skin of growing children - having them sleep with their cell phones is SUCH A BAD IDEA anyway. I think we just need to peacefully coexist with these wonderful devices which make our lives better in so many ways. I think your recommendations are great ones.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Wow Elana! I've never heard of FOMO, but it makes sense. I was talking to my friend Lisa at church Sunday, and she says they have a "no phone zone" at the dinner table. What a great idea! It took us a while to figure out in our family that boundaries with these devices help us live a better life. Love these examples Elana. Thanks for sharing.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

I love Do not Disturb also! (Although sometimes I think I have set it to override do not disturb because it seems like it is going off all the time!)

Kelly Kemick's picture

I get so torn about how I feel about electronics. There are many ways that all the new technology is beneficial to our society and so many ways that it hinders us from growing and developing relationships. I feel as though it takes us away from family and responsibilities because people feel the need to respond immediately to all requests and it is turned on 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. I feel as though it hinders us from thinking and using our brains for simple daily tasks; memorizing phone numbers, researching information, etc... On the other hand if this technology is used properly and in moderation it can benefit society and expose us to so many other cultures, ideas, and opportunities.

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations

Vicki -

Having spent much time in Ireland, well, I don't see the difference. The Irish do not talk about "work" but they seem mighty connected via their mobiles. Mighty connected. That's the nation which first fully embraced texting as central to communication.

Anyway, it's "Socrates Syndrome," right? http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2009/05/width-of-world.html Why Socrates opposed literacy. It broke up human communication. And, of course, Irish scholars buried in books weren't chatting much...

As I noted in 2009, every technological leap in communication moves us both away from the directly personal we love but toward the global connectivity we crave.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Yes, Ira Socol. You've spent lots of time in Ireland - far more than me! Perhaps it was because it was the week of Christmas. But when I noticed this was when we were out to eat or in places where families were together. While certainly they had phones, they just seem not to have their phone in their faces when their families are there! It was pretty pronounced. Again, it was the week of Christmas but the difference was pretty astounding to me.

You know I love technology. I really adore it. I just think that there are times to put it up -- and when family is right there in front of you eating dinner, I think that is perhaps one of the most important times to put it up. I speak this not as one who has perfected this but as one who has missed times and moments and wished I learned this lesson sooner!

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations

Here's a structural difference Vicki, probably disconnected from any particular technology. Family matters far more there - as in most of Europe. Without the Protestant Work Ethic people spend much more time with their families - a much shorter work week - many more vacation days - whole families going to the "local" pub together. With the television tax and smaller homes the whole family tends to share one room every evening as well. This creates a family contact norm much stronger than anything Americans have. At Christmas you probably saw families together, so that connection dominates. During evenings out among younger friends during the rest of the year you might see behavior more familiar.

So I think different in context, not necessarily in technology use.

But I think what you saw builds that Socratic context question. What is the balance we look for between the personal and the global. Ireland has a long history of working that balance. Surely it is a "head in the book" culture, and has been for centuries. At the same time it is deeply a "shared literacy" culture - dedicated to storytelling, public debate, shared music. And it is fundamentally different in both from Anglo-American culture - thus faster to embrace contemporary technologies and more dedicated to ancient ones - maybe, as I once suggested, that's all the same...

Sam Bryce's picture

Watching my son (10 years old) and my niece (12 years old), I really feel like their interaction with electronic devices is like an addiction. My niece spends most afternoons at our house. If we don't make an active effort to integrate her into the activities in the house, she will find a corner and spend hours texting her friends from school, isolating herself from everyone else. My son does not have a phone, but he will spend every available minute that he is allowed on the computer, playing Minecraft and posting videos on YouTube. He likes playing sports and is fine when he is separated from the computer, but like my niece, every chance he gets he will spend on an electronic device.

I know that some of this is just the way that kids socially interact now--when they can't see each other in person, they communicate and play on their electronic devices. But I feel like they are missing out on the real world when they spend all of their waking hours in the electronic world.

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations


What are their options? Do they get to play outside with their friends? Build, create games, interact without adult oversight?

Adults so limit the world of children and then complain about "digital addiction." But kids find the digital realm the only place they have freedom - the only place they get to interact freely, the only place they can take risks.

Let your children out into the real world without you constantly watching over them - let them take real risks in the real environment - and they night put down those devices and make other choices.


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