Whistleblower Frances Haugen recently exposed how Facebook’s own research links its Instagram service with body dissatisfaction and suicidal thoughts among teenagers. In a chilling TED Talk, design thinker Tristan Harris revealed how Google, his former employer, lures users into staying on-screen far longer than is good for them. Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge reported that teenage anxiety levels spiked after smartphones started to saturate the adolescent market in 2012. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of 5-year-olds received government-mandated, on-screen instruction that well exceeded the one-hour limit that was recommended pre-pandemic by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What are schools, school systems, governments, and foundations doing to stem this toxic tide of digital distraction, depression, and addiction? The answer, sadly, is very little—or nothing at all.
Yes, a Senate subcommittee recently grilled big-tech-company executives about the serious harm their products might do to children, but it’s unclear whether the protective legislation some legislators favor will ever see the light of day. Even more alarming perhaps, the people in charge of what our students should learn and how they should learn it are mainly making things worse.
Early in the pandemic, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a major partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” digitally. Why, “with all the technology you have,” he disturbingly wondered aloud, was there any need for “all these physical classrooms” anymore?
When I joined global policy discussions to brainstorm post-pandemic educational scenarios, I witnessed ed-tech entrepreneurs, government leaders, and philanthropy executives wax lyrical about a transformative future of digital, blended, and hybrid learning. COVID-19 seemed to be the disruptive educational force they’d all been waiting for, the force that would upend conventional schooling everywhere.
If, like me, you are worried about the downside for students of such rapture, let me suggest the example of the notorious Luddites, a group of 19th-century English textile workers known for smashing the inventions that threatened their own jobs. Contrary to the popular understanding, the Luddites were actually very skilled with technologies. They weren’t opposed to all of them. They destroyed only the machines that they believed were being misused to undermine good labor practices.
My own research reveals countless examples of thoughtful uses of digital learning technologies in interdisciplinary projects and in formative assessments shared in real time. And, of course, during the pandemic, teachers have made enormous strides in developing their own and their kids’ digital competence so they can make use of such approaches. This is to the good.
So the answer is not to smash all the screens. Instead, we need to embrace our inner Luddite: Retain the uses of technology that offer distinctive benefits, yet ruthlessly eradicate the uses that lead to toxic effects.
How exactly should we go about this?
In response to the exuberance of technology advocates in the early months of the pandemic, my new colleagues and I at the University of Ottawa in Canada created a charter for ethical technology use. Here are six of its 10 provisions.
- The primacy of schools and teaching. Most children and families need physical schools with in-person teaching and learning. They enable young people to develop identities as members of a community. Frankly, physical schools are also necessary because children’s parents need to go to work. Online learning has a place in all our lives now, but nothing will ever beat the stimulation, relationships, and engagement children get from in-person teaching.
- Unique value proposition. Learning technologies should be adopted when they have a unique value that cannot be addressed in another way. This is true of all learning resources such as manipulatives, books, and conversation. Adapting technologies for students with special needs, collaborating with colleagues across remote rural communities, and transforming assessment such that students, parents, and teachers alike can get instantaneous feedback on student learning—these are some of the digital ways we can enhance teaching and learning. Digital technologies must be employed only where they add unique value, and not, willy-nilly, just because they are there.
Universal access. Educational technology access must be universal and free as a basic human right. Countries like Estonia already have this. Others come very close. Uruguay, for example, instituted the provision of one laptop per child in 2007, and has a national online digital platform, backed up with in-person facilitators, that stimulates and supports innovation. The platform saw a huge increase in use during COVID-19. Meanwhile, over 98 percent of South Korean families have access to broadband and devices. This sort of reach is the only way we will eliminate the digital divide that puts students from well-off, well-educated families on one side and everyone else on the other.
- Risk management. Strategies of educational-technology use must address risks. These include excess screen time, digital addiction, adolescent anxieties about online identities, algorithms that reinforce in-group prejudices as well as personal preferences, excessive student surveillance, and displacement of valuable nondigital activities, such as outdoor play and sleep. Every school, district, government, and technology company should have a clear and transparent policy of risk identification and management. Teachers’ unions should insist on one. And every agreement signed with a technology provider should reflect concern about ethical technology use.
- Disciplined innovation. Technology use should be evidence-informed, inquiry-driven, and impact-assessed. In research with my Boston College colleague Dennis Shirley, school superintendents have reported that when predecessors introduced digital tablets into their schools in one fell swoop, it created chaos among students and teachers lasting a year or more. Digital tools and platforms should be adopted systemwide only after thorough processes of disciplined inquiry with smaller groups. This calls for a new paradigm of collaborative development that should include and empower teachers and students, rather than corporations, as the primary design drivers of learning.
- Public responsibility. Educational technology companies should pay fair taxes. They have accrued enormous profits during the pandemic, including from students’ learning. Tax subsidized philanthropy directed to causes determined by corporate leaders is no substitute for properly assigned taxes prioritized and distributed through civic means for public benefit, including public education.
We mustn’t be blinded by the digital light. But it’s not a moment to switch off all our screens either. Instead, every school and system must focus more sharply and think more precisely about where, when, and how technology-supported learning can and cannot add unique value to students’ experiences and outcomes.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Stemming the Toxic Tide Of Technology