Catherine Steiner-Adair will be leading a discussion about tech addiction at Techonomy 2018, November 11-13, in Half Moon Bay, California.

(Illustration by Clara Kirkpatrick)

In today’s educational environment, computers, tablets, and smartphones have opened the world to students who might otherwise have been confined by the four walls of the classroom. Yet the promise of educational technology obscures a troublesome set of developments. In the rush to install the latest educational technologies, schools have lost their bearings, contributing to screen addiction that threatens serious harm to the developing brains of children.
At a time in their development when children must learn social and emotional skills, learn to be patient and give sustained attention, develop good habits from play and face-to-face talk, and grow as healthy, creative, and curious individuals, technology is short-circuiting all that. As schools have fallen in love with technology, they’ve also lost control of it and surrendered to it. The Pew Research Center, in a 2018 survey of smartphone and mobile-device use, found that 95 percent of teenagers report owning smartphones, and 45 percent says they are online “almost constantly”.
As a psychologist who travels internationally to observe and evaluate the impact of technology on education and the social and emotional well-being of K-12 schoolchildren, I am continually asked by parents, teachers, and administrators about ways to get a grip on technology. In 2013, I warned of these tech trade-offs in my book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. In the years since publication, the crisis has only worsened. While there are excellent discreet, research-supported ways to use tech for learning, the overall presence of screens in schools has altered education in problematic ways.
Now almost without fail when I go to schools I am told that tech is “out of control,” that students see computer games, texting, and browsing as default activities, and that these activities dominate schools and classrooms. Smartphones undermine learning and impact our thoughts and behaviors even when we aren’t using them. That was the clear finding of research published in 2017 with the blunt title, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”
Cognitive scientists continue to reveal ways in which increased dependency on smartphones—both using them and just having one on you—is linked to less robust intellectual activity. A phone goes off in your pocket or pings on your laptop in school and your work gets more careless, while your ability to problem-solve, be creative, learn, apply logical reasoning, think abstractly and creatively are all diminished. And the effects are felt not just in the moment, but for the long term. While some critical neurological pathways are not being reinforced, others are, like craving distraction.
Consider these vignettes from my recent travels:

  • At a co-ed school, students use iPads and iPhones to play a hot online game called Fortnite Battle Royale during class, while others browse retail sites or text friends.
  • High school juniors and seniors at another school warn that middle school children aren’t learning social skills. Says one, “Middle school is when you learn to make eye contact, how to walk the halls and not bump into other people, where to sit at lunch. But what we see is kids who never look away from their screens.”
  • At another middle school, parents observe that their children don’t talk to other children because they are so continuously absorbed in their smartphones, even on the bus. They text their parents during the day if they have an issue at school instead of first talking to their teacher.
  • Parents repeatedly complain that after spending four to eight hours on screens at school, students do their homework with two or three screens open. They are ineffectively ‘multitasking’, rarely resting alone, contemplating ideas or just chatting with friends or family in the same room. And they are ‘clueless and frustrated,’ says one parent, both about what their children actually should be doing for school and how to set limits on at-home screen use.
  • Technology company executives, especially in Silicon Valley, often tell me they send their children to Montessori or Waldorf-style schools, where technology access is tightly controlled. At such schools, the curriculum deliberately includes self-regulation, learning from the three-dimensional world, intrinsic curiosity, play, art, music, and social and emotional learning. One executive told me, “I don’t let my children have any smart technology of their own until they are 14. I want them growing up in the country, reading for pleasure, playing outdoors and learning about social interaction and the real world.”
  • Acknowledging these challenges, in 2017 the private girls’ school Chapin in New York City banned using or even carrying all personal mobile devices, including cellphones, tablets, and similar devices during the school day.
  • Researchers at the U.S. Military Academy, in a peer-reviewed study published in “Economics of Education Review”, found that the use, and even the presence, of computer devices in the classroom significantly reduces performance on examinations.
  • In France, education officials decided that beginning in September 2018, children ages 3 to 15 may not have phones in school or anywhere on school grounds, with only a few exceptions. Explains the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer: “We want children to rediscover the real, that connection to the concrete, to nature, to doing things with their hands, to contact with other human beings.”

(Illustration by Clara Kirkpatrick)

Technology is hijacking essential aspects of education, not simply supporting and enhancing it. Our children need to play more in the real world if they are to realize a stable, effective adulthood—to learn from blocks and other manipulatives when they are small, later to read amazing books, and to talk with others about stories and the details of their lives, and learn to be ethical, calm, patient, empathetic, and curious human beings. They need to develop the capacity for solitude, self-reflection and downtime, instead of endlessly feeding their craving for the stimulation provided by tech. Instead, we see them racing through their schoolwork so they can text their friends, play computer games during recess, and walk through the hallways posting on social media sites in between classes and creating new streams of online drama that disrupt academics.
Among parents, there is profound despair as they try to deal with this issue. They want to know why their children cannot put down their smartphones, why they behave in such immature ways and are so irritable when asked to get off their tech, and why they find it so easy to say things on social media that hurt others.
Veteran and new teachers alike report the same observations—that students of all ages have lost critical skills for learning, including patience, persistence, curiosity, creativity, sustained attention, and the slow process of reflection and self-correction. Teachers hate to be the “tech police” and many say they have given up enforcing rules about iPhones even though they are well aware that the very presence of an iPhone diminishes intellectual growth. But the message this sends to students is “They don’t care about the rules so why should we?” Meanwhile, there is widespread frustration among teachers with demands to use new technology without adequate training or evidence-based research that explains why they should.
There is no doubt that technology has thrilling and profound implications for education. When used appropriately, tech enables students to share information in new ways, work collaboratively, be curious and explore resources worldwide, create content, and dive deep into personalized learning. However, educators need to be wary of companies that promote educational hardware and software that offer new ways of learning and ignore the research on the developing brain, on the reading brain, and on the impact of technology on social development and creativity.
Digital reading reinforces a tendency to multitask and skim. While students take in information, it often remains at a superficial level and does not stay in their long-term memory. When students read on screens, they are less likely to think critically and analytically about what they have read, or have it change their minds, or touch their hearts.
It takes time, practice and repetition to develop the neurological pathways that develop what cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf calls deep reading—reflecting on what we are reading, comparing it to what we already know, empathizing with the perspective of others, pondering human behavior and consequences. Deep reading helps develop students’ capacity for moral development, ethical integrity, empathy and compassion.
Like canaries in the coal mine, today’s children are being used by tech companies to see just how much “tweeting” students can take. As technology continues to hijack the classroom, school culture and community, the tech industry is risking the impairment of our children’s healthy development.
The worst thing we can do, in education and in society, is to continue to focus on the wonders of technology without also guarding against its downside.
Catherine Steiner-Adair is the author of The Big Disconnect:  Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age and a Research Associate, Dept. of Psychiatry, at Harvard Medical School.