Technology Isn’t Evil

Inevitably, anytime we present to a group of teens about the detrimental effects their overuse of technology is having on their mental and social skills, we get questions about our own technology use. “Did you write your book using a computer or by hand?” or “Do you have a smartphone?” The answer to these questions are, “Of course we typed our book on a computer and we both have smartphones.” However, to think this makes us hypocritical misunderstands our point entirely.

Technology isn’t inherently evil. (This would be a difficult position to defend on a blog). Many technological developments have vastly improved the quality of our lives. There have been countless medical advances that extend our life expectancy. There have been technologies that have lessened energy consumption, driven down costs of consumer goods, and made instant worldwide communication possible. A smartphone would have been a godsend when my ’77 Impala ran out of gas on the interstate when I was in high school. And who doesn’t appreciate Facebook reminders about their wife’s birthday? My colleague and I have even created a Google Community where some of the world’s leading researchers share their findings on the harms of technology. Oh, the irony.

Of course I’m not saying technology is bad, or that it isn’t useful. I’m not even arguing that it doesn’t belong in education. Projectors, overheads, even chalk could be considered “educational technology.” There are some wonderful tools being used by teachers in classrooms to give students opportunities unimaginable several years ago.

Even still, we tend to agree with many of the pro-technology advocates’ assertions about young people’s technology use. Most notably, we agree that modern screen-based technology has profoundly changed millennials. However, this change is almost entirely negative. This is where we disagree with pro-technology advocates like Marc Presnky and the marketing team from Google Classroom, who claim that modern young people are a generation of “digitally enhanced superkids” with abilities and skills far more advanced than any generation in history because of their technology use.

The issue isn’t “all things technological.” The issue is young people’s 9+ hours a day spent passively consuming low-stimulation media and the detrimental impact this has on their cognitive and social development. The issue is entire generations of young people are spending the periods of their lives most critical for their mental growth ensconced in mindless entertainment media. Children and teens spend majorities of their waking days playing video games, watching videos, listening to music, and scrolling through social media. In this period of development, a child’s brain is wonderfully malleable, and is adapting to their environment to prepare them for the mental demands of the future. Unfortunately, when a young-person spends most of this period in a zombie-like trance, their mental development is delayed, stifled, and even irrevocably harmed.

As a teacher, I’ve seen the increasing devastation this toxic technological environment has had on my students. These deficits can be categorized into four major areas weaknesses:

  1. Decline of Focus: Because most millennials are using multiple forms of technology at a given time, they’ve convinced themselves they are capable “multitaskers.” The reality is, “multitasking” is mostly a myth and millennials are even worse at it than older generations. Rather than improving their ability to do multiple things at a given time, the overstimulation created by modern technology has diminished their ability to focus on a single, less gratifying stimulus.
  2. Decline of Knowledge: The way young people interact and use technology has led to their dependence on things like search engines to provide their knowledge for them. They’ve outsourced their knowledge to the external hard-drives that are their phones, tablets, and iPads. The limitless access to information that portable screen devices provide them has worked to dampen their intellectual curiosity.
  3. Decline of Critical Thinking: Because the areas of the brain required for higher levels of thought are being underutilized, these areas are being “pruned” away, resulting in subsequent loss of cognitive ability. This, combined with a lack of tactile learning experiences (the primary way people have learned for the last 100,000 years), has led to a diminished ability to express deeper levels of thought. Also, because higher level thinking stems from one’s knowledge, their lack of knowledge leaves them incapable of achieving higher levels of thought.
  4. Decline of Social Skills: Social media has replaced real face-to-face interactions with less dynamic, self-involved forms of communication.

These observations have been substantiated by numerous studies that we reference throughout our work. But much of this can be inferred by common sense. 20 years ago, parents would expect similar shortcomings from kids who spent all day and night in their rooms playing Nintendo and watching TV. But for some reason, today, many adults are willing to believe that because the medium has changed, and children are on laptops and cellphones rather than TVs, these same activities are now having a positive effect on their children.

Of course these harms don’t stem from all technology. There is an obvious difference between a teen spending all day and night playing World of Warcraft and spending an evening typing a research paper on her laptop. There are obvious times where using technology makes sense. A computer programming class without computers would be pointless. Using the card-catalog to find a book in the library would be a waste of time. There is a clear difference between “useful” technology and “harmful” technology.

The important thing to remember is that the average child is a technology addict, and addicts can’t just put their addictions aside whenever they want. It’s impossible for any reasonable person to think that teens can turn off their addictions to entertainment media the moment they pass through the doors to their schools. That’s true of anyone, but especially of young people who are particularly susceptible to the demands of immediate gratification. Unfortunately, it’s this addiction to the harmful side of technology that makes the average tech addict incapable of realizing the benefit of any useful type of technology.

Next time you hear someone touting the advantages of a technology-based education consider this; imagine your child has biology class in a gymnasium. In one corner of this gym you have a variety of educational videos on the structure of the double-helix, some PowerPoints and Prezis explaining DNA, and an educational game with an interactive Punnett Square. Sounds wonderful. However, in the adjacent corner are all of his friends, every single one of them. They’re standing their shouting his name and waving their hands. But that’s not all. In the next corner is an arcade. Unlike the games in the educational corner, these games are fun. They involve first person shooting, racing, explosions, and all other types of gratuitous violence, and not to mention, they are designed to be addictive. This arcade also happens to have a TV that can show any episode of any of his favorite shows, and countless movies. Finally, in the last corner you have porn, mountains of porn. Every type of porn imaginable. Would you drop your child off at this gym, watch them walk in, and be confident they’re receiving a quality education?

In a nutshell…this is our point.