Robert Badal says social media and smartphone technology are inherently addictive, and e-learning might do more harm than good. Parents and teachers need to lead by example in the fight against device overuse
January 2: the World Health Organisation listed “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition under its International Classification of Diseases.
January 6: the California State Teacher’s Retirement System wrote to Apple demanding restrictions to children’s smartphone access and support for research, citing a range of serious mental health issues connected to smartphone use supported by clinical studies.
Soon after, former Apple executive Tony Fadell, “the father of the iPod”, slammed internet and social media companies for creating widespread addiction that Steve Jobs would have opposed.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dr Sherry Turkle called this rising storm “a bottom-up backlash”. She wrote a prophetic book in 2011 Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, warning of the psychological and societal damage that is omnipresent now.
It is the nature of the beast. One of my students, Hoi Yan Shek, a Columbia University economics major, nailed it: “The key performance indicator of tech firms is the amount of time users spend and their engagement. This directly affects a company’s stock price. Tech firms must be dedicated to getting users addicted.”
And we have all been fatalistically complaisant. I was a California public school teacher when president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act mandated classroom technology utilisation. Companies churned out e-learning gizmos that we had to deploy in our lessons. Later, as a university professor in Japan, great fanfare accompanied the new computer room’s unveiling: row after row of boxy, now obsolete, desktops. Core skills – reading comprehension or writing – were never the rationale. The pitch was some variation of the need to “expose students to technology”.
Part of this was to address poorer students’ unequal access to technology. But this argument is outdated. Now anyone can step into a shop and walk out holding a more powerful device than that entire roomful of desktops.
Ironically, the impetus propelling educational technology today is the opposite of altruism. E-learning is designed either to sell gizmos or replace paid teachers because it can be mass duplicated: cheap economies-of-scale “education”.
A newer argument for technology in schools is that students love smartphones, so they belong in the classroom – again, with no objective studies about consequences.
How many other “tech advances” with questionable effects have we unquestioningly swallowed?
The cause of tech addiction is its intrinsic addictiveness and the unhesitating belief in technology’s benefits. The standard response to the problems is to rhapsodise about the amazing “possibilities” of tech and recite “all we need is education in its proper use”. Really?
There has never been anything to match the intimate, innately addictive nature of this new technology – or anything with such profound effects that was embraced so recklessly on such a mass scale.
Comparing it to the appearance of television is absurd: families used to watch programmes together. They didn’t take their TV to school or work. The old flip phones were pocketed until calls came in. Now, addicts compulsively clutch their devices, shutting out their surroundings. Their flashing smartphones usually ruin my Hong Kong cinema experience, despite the theatre’s on-screen “education” to switch off.
The oft-chanted reply with regards to children is that “parents are responsible”. True, but this is also another form of shifting the blame, exactly what the US gun lobby does after mass shootings. Product package warnings is another suggestion, but every cigarette pack now has gruesome warning images, yet Hong Kong is still choked with second-hand smoke.
Social media and smartphone technologies are carefully-crafted, always-with-you addictions. Founders of tech companies restrict their children’s access because they know how effective that built-in addictiveness is. A nine-year old with a smartphone won’t choose to read instead of play games or watch videos.
The “parents are responsible” slogan is an oversimplification. Their responsibility often translates into simply taking away the child’s phone, which backfires in schools where phones are permitted because there is always one child with the latest model, who immediately becomes “cool” and his or her device the object of envy. France is currently in the process of banning smartphones in primary and middle schools. A good start, but the solution for children is complex.
A child absorbs his or her environment, especially at home. “Educating” children about proper use is hopeless unless their home life reflects the message. Cellphone-addicted parents produce cellphone-addicted children. “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” doesn’t work – especially given the Hong Kong “delegating” parenting style of assigning a helper and tuition schools to be surrogate parents.
Parents must participate in their children’s education. There has been considerable documentation about the benefits of something I grew up with: parents reading with their children.
Parents are busy and may not be great readers, but the skills and attitudes engendered and the parent-child bond created outweigh the challenges. The sad truth of Dr Turkle’s book title, Alone Together, becomes painfully obvious when you see a family having dinner, not speaking, each engrossed in his or her phone.
One of the most damning references in the letter from the California State Teacher’s Retirement System to Apple was a study showing that children in a technology-free environment for five days had greater empathy afterwards. “If you don’t use it, lose it.” If we keep substituting technological experiences for real ones, we will lose everything.
Robert Badal is on Facebook at Ba Lao Shi Perfect English