danah boyd, an insightful writer for Education Modern Learners and a principal researcher at Microsoft, wrote a response to the NYTImes “Room For Debate” column on the topic “Is internet addiction a concern for teenagers?” boyd’s response was an unequivocal “no”. Instead, she suggested we needed to look at the stress we are placing on our children and out over-protection of them as the problem.
This is the Catch-22 that we’ve trapped today’s youth in. We’ve locked them indoors because we see the physical world as more dangerous than ever before, even though by almost every measure, we live in the safest society to date. We put unprecedented demands on our kids, maxing them out with structured activities, homework and heavy expectations. And then we’re surprised when they’re frazzled and strung out.
For many teenagers, technology is a relief valve. (And that goes for the strung-out, overworked parents and adults playing Candy Crush, too.) It’s not the inherently addictive substance that fretting parents like to imagine. It simply provides an outlet.
The presence of technology alone is not the issue. We see much higher levels of concern about technology “addiction” in countries where there’s even greater pressure to succeed and fewer social opportunities (e.g., China, South Korea, etc.).
If Americans truly want to reduce the amount young people use technology, we should free up more of their time.
This reasoning resonates with me having witnessed the intense pressure many children face at earlier and earlier ages and the many pieces I’ve written about the need for children to have unstructured time to play with each other out of doors if possible. It also resonates because I have a sense that we are becoming more like China and Korea, who rely on standardized tests as the only means of entry into higher levels of education and accept social rigidity as a by-product. But boyd should realize that parents find themselves in their own Catch 22. When they read about parents who are arrested for allowing their children to walk home from school, when they are subjected to endless reports of child abductions and dangers their children could encounter in unsupervised environments, when their child’s actions are captured on camera every moment during the school day, when they are told by their school that if their child fails to do well on a particular test they will not be able to enroll in a particular school, and when they hear repeatedly that their child needs an impressive resume to get into a competitive college and therefore be set for life, parents get the message: Monitor your child 24/7; make sure they study hard; make certain their every moment is accounted for. This message will be very hard to overcome as long as we place a huge emphasis on standardized tests and as long as we promote fear in the media. Here’s body’s concluding paragraphs:
This is why many of our youth turn to technology. They aren’t addicted to the computer; they’re addicted to interaction, and being around their friends. Children, and especially teenagers, don’t want to only socialize with parents and siblings; they want to play with their peers. That’s how they make sense of the world. And we’ve robbed them of that opportunity because we’re afraid of boogeymen.
We’re raising our children in captivity and they turn to technology to socialize, learn and decompress. Why are we blaming the screens?
Children want time to play… and the I-Phone is their new playground.
Two recent articles, one on “Screen Addiction” by Jane Brody in the NYTimes and one on “Helicopter Parenting” by Julie Lythcott-Haims in Slate indicate how difficult free-range parenting can be in this day and age of intense competition and pervasive electronic media.
Brody’s article suggests that closer parental supervision of children is needed when it comes to computer games… and given the intentional addictiveness of those games the supervision must often be heavy-handed and invasive. Brody’s article describes research on how much time children spend in front of screens, which approaches 8 hours per day on average for 8-10 year olds. She illustrates this phenomenon by describing her husband’s challenges in trying to engage their grandchildren in conversation when transporting them to and from school.
Two of my grandsons, ages 10 and 13, seem destined to suffer some of the negative effects of video-game overuse. The 10-year-old gets up half an hour earlier on school days to play computer games, and he and his brother stay plugged into their hand-held devices on the ride to and from school. “There’s no conversation anymore,” said their grandfather, who often picks them up. When the family dines out, the boys use their devices before the meal arrives and as soon as they finish eating.
Perversely, close supervision and monitoring of a child’s every action can lead to over-parenting— which can be every bit as detrimental as “screen addiction”. Lythcott-Haims’ Slate article describes how parents who try to control every aspect of a child’s life end up disabling them:
When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.
When seemingly perfectly healthy but overparented kids get to college and have trouble coping with the various new situations they might encounter—a roommate who has a different sense of “clean,” a professor who wants a revision to the paper but won’t say specifically what is “wrong,” a friend who isn’t being so friendly anymore, a choice between doing a summer seminar or service project but not both—they can have real difficulty knowing how to handle the disagreement, the uncertainty, the hurt feelings, or the decision-making process. This inability to cope—to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision—can become a problem unto itself.
Both of these parental behaviors are a manifestation of our culture that values busy-ness and competition. A busy parent is happy to have their child quiet and engaged in an activity that doesn’t involve watching television and doesn’t require their undivided attention…. and playing computer games seems innocuous. Indeed, in some cases the children’s screen addiction may be a reflection of the parents’ addiction. A parent who wants “the best” for their child will carefully schedule their activities so that they “stay out of trouble” and build a resume that will help them get into a top tier college where a diploma will lead to a good job. In both of these cases the children are robbed of the chance to interact with peers in an unstructured environment, to use their imaginations, and to daydream now and then… they are not allowed to be children.
Getting out of this trap will require a free-range parenting approach that sets clear limits on the use of screens, maintains free-time on the child’s calendar, and encourages unstructured outdoor activities with other children of similar ages and/or physical abilities. This free range parenting requires a fearlessness: a belief that their children will not be abducted if they join friends at the playground; their children will not be denied entry to a top tier college if they aren’t fully scheduled 24-7-365; that their children cannot thrive without close supervision; that their children will reject them of they say “No” to every request. Here’s hoping there are enough courageous parents to offset the laissez faire group allowing their children to sit mindlessly in front of screens or the intensely engaged group who smother their children’s curiosity and imagination by packing every minute of every day with activities.
As noted in many previous posts, public schools have been collecting massive amounts of data on individual students for decades… data that has been stored in stuffed file folders and various generations of microfiche and computer formats. This inconvenient and inconsistent method of data collection made it impossible to use group data to determine the effectiveness of teaching methods, to track an individual student’s learning, or to do systematic research in education.
The advent of cloud storage, the adoption of uniform learning standards, and the extensive use of standardized tests makes it possible to gather and analyze data systematically. This should be nothing but good news for teachers and parents… but as we’ve seen with the NSA, data collection has a dark side as well. Recent articles in the NYTimes and Atlantic describe the dilemma researchers and practitioners face in making use of the data that is now available: the reluctance of parents to have information about their children stored on line.
The Times article, “When Guarding Student Data Endangers Valuable Research” looks at the Data Dilemma from the research angle. As the writer Susan Dynarski notes, the data gathered is invaluable:
Educators parse this data to understand what is working in their schools. Advocates plumb the data to expose unfair disparities in test scores and graduation rates, building cases to target more resources for the poor. Researchers rely on this data when measuring the effectiveness of education interventions.
Noting that despite the fact that no one has hacked into the student data and despite the fact the student data is not a likely target for marketers, many legislators are proposing laws that would hamstring the efforts of researchers to draw on the data to gain a better understanding of what works and the efforts of teachers to use the data to personalize instruction. To use a phrase of one of my colleagues in Maryland, the legislators are using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. Her solution to this is to provide the Department of Education with the ability “…to impose serious penalties on districts and states as soon as they are found to have violated privacy regulations” noting that “…the states, districts and the courts then need to do the hard work of enforcing laws that protect student privacy.” A noble idea, but a non-starter in Congress who, even if they passed such a law to pacify indignant parents, would fail to provide the funding for enforcement.
The Atlantic article by Andrew Giambrone describes one way to solve this data dilemma. Given the government’s seeming inability to deal with this problem, and the given the demand for data analytics on the part of schools (e.g. a 2012 survey of educational professionals indicated that 80% of the respondents “…believed analytics would become more important in the future”), developing an acceptable means of defining appropriate use of data may fall to local districts working with eager vendors. Giambrone describes how this is happening across the country… and it calls to mind a Ted Sizer quote I used frequently: “How does change occur in education? Slowly, Carefully, and All At Once”. His concluding paragraphs underscore why the systematic collection of student data is a good idea… and why this change will happen slowly and carefully:
Jose Ferreira, the founder and CEO of Knewton, a New York-based company that develops adaptive-learning tools, says a lot of student data is going to waste right now; rather than being forgotten at the end of each school year or semester, it could be harnessed responsibly to drive learning outcomes. His company tracks students’ proficiencies across a variety of subjects, but will not share that information—even with teachers—unless explicitly authorized to do so by a student’s legal guardians.
“If you’re going to touch people’s data, it’s very important that the benefits be clear,” he explains. “‘Why should I let you collect my data? The benefits are fantastic? Now you have to reassure me you’re going to use it in a way I’m comfortable with.’”
Like Ferreira, I am convinced that reams of student data is going to waste.. but like the majority of parents, I am not yet comfortable with the way the data could and might be shared. That will take some time.
Diane Ravitch nails all the reasons this legislation is bad… but she and the commenters miss a horrific assumption implicit in the legislation: the most important outcome of schooling is earning megabucks. Based on that assumption, the most meaningful metric for a college is the earnings of its graduates and calculating that metric will require the collection of scads of data. And here’s a prediction I’ll make: some legislator will suggest this initiative could be funded by selling the data! After ll, selling the data is much more desirable than raising taxes… and anyway the kids entering college are already used to being monitored on cameras— and they have nothing to fear with their data being shared unless they have something to hide.
I read earlier this month week that NYC schools recently replaced their student data web site, as described in this paragraph from the NYTimes article:
The city’s Education Department created NYC Schools to replace Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, a data system built at great expenseunder Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration that was used by only a small fraction of parents. At the end of last year, the department ended its contract with Amplify, the company that maintained ARIS and is run by Joel I. Klein, who was schools chancellor during the system’s creation. Since then, parents have not had a way of viewing their children’s information online.
As one who began my college career as an engineering major and who ended up with a major in Humanities and Technology, I’ve long been an advocate of the power technology could bring to education. When I was Superintendent in upstate NY from 1997-2002 I aggressively expanded the use of technology in our offices and schools. With the technological capability to collect and use data, my staff and I sought ways to use data warehousing to improve our tracking of student progress and management of the reams of information we collected on our students. When I concluded by career working in an interstate school district in Hanover NH and Norwich VT we instituted the use of Powerschool, Apple’s data management system, It helped us schedule MS and HS students, maintain a common set of baseline information on students, and made each student’s grades available to parents through the use of a password protected portal. Both states in the interstate district developed (or bought) and ultimately required the use of on-line IEP programs and both states developed (or bought) management systems that enabled teachers to use data from State assessments to inform their instruction.
The introduction of technology was difficult in both venues. In New York, where the implementation preceded the widespread use of cell phones, I-pads, or even lap top computers, the daily or even periodic use of computers in lieu of paper was new and different and resisted by teachers, administrative assistants, and even parents. A decade later when we instituted the use of the parent portal the debates had more to do with security (e.g. are we SURE that a hacker won’t get into this?), the change in work expectations (e.g. you mean I have to post my grades on-line within a week of giving a test?), and process (e.g. we usually use a democratic process at THIS school to decide issues like the parent portal!).
To those who questioned security I indicated we WERE acting on faith that Apple had thought this through and was confident their system was secure— much the same way we took on faith that Amazon, our local banks, and our credit card companies are secure.
To those who questioned work expectations I responded in honest bewilderment. “I hope you don’t expect me to defend your right as a professional to make a student wait a week to find out how they did on an examination or a term paper… because I can’t.” Fortunately the professionalism of the great majority of the staff stopped that rebuttal in its tracks.
To those who questioned the process I had to acknowledge that decisions about what kind of operating system we would use had to be made in a hierarchical fashion…. and computers made it imperative that we abandon the old days where each school had its own system of listing and collecting names, addresses, and other baseline data which then required the successive school and/or teacher to needlessly re-enter the same information in a different format. This was a clear waste of staff time and resources. Of course this also meant that everyone would need to adapt to whatever changes resulted from the new system that was dictated from our office. While each Principal was involved in the decision regarding the kind of system we would design or buy… once the decision was reached EVERYONE had to use the same system. Bottom line: Choosing the system was democratic; implementing the system was dictatorial.
It’s been four full years since I led a school district, and much has changed in that time period. Indeed, even as I was leaving the office I had a sense that change was in the offing relative to data warehousing and student management systems. The small operation that offered the district in NYS a free demo on school warehousing got bought up by a bigger organization and the last I read they were somehow connected with Pearson. Oh, and Pearson bought Powerschool and became the developer of the assessments whose results would be stored on Powerschool… along with lots of information about a student’s health and well-being. And then I read blog posts like the one in last week’s Mathbabe that included this provocative information:
…EBay and PayPal recently changed their user agreements so that, if you’re a user of either of those services, you will receive marketing calls using any phone number you’ve provided them or that they have “have otherwise obtained.” There is no possibility to opt out, except perhaps to abandon the services. Oh, and they might also call you for surveys or debt collections. Oh, and they claim their intention is to“benefit our relationship.”
(And) Given how much venture capitalists (who have invested in many on-line services) like to brag about their return (on investment), I think we have reason to worry about the coming wave of “innovative” uses of our personal data. Telemarketing is the tip of the iceberg.
Schools have a trove of electronically stored information that parents and teachers clearly need and want to use… and private for-profit corporations are gobbling up these services and, as the Mathbabe notes, when they DO take them over they can unilaterally change the see agreements.
There IS a solution to all of this… and that is to pass some kind of legislation to regulate the use of student data so that it is not sold or disclosed to anyone. We can’t go back to filing cabinets stuffed with reams of papers that are impossible to sift through and expensive to keep… but we don’t want to compromise the confidentiality that paper documents generally provided.