We are Tech-Free Parents

– We avoid screens for our kids.
– Completely or…?
– Completely.
– That can’t be easy nowadays
– That’s the point. And it’s not.

I once thought we were protecting children from screen-based media, until I realised the child is actually being given an uncommon opportunity to retain his freedom.  It’s the screens that, like overpowering, over-protective guardians, hold children back from the adventures they would naturally embark on, make them a little less confident, a little more needy, a little less happy.

Some may think it’s silly to not let a child interact with screens in this day and age, given that they’re everywhere, inside and outside of the home but that really is the point. 

Let’s pretend for a moment that using screen-based devices might do a child some harm, like unhealthy eating for example.  I might strive to reduce that harm by limiting their use.  Now if I decide to stop feeding sweets and junk food to my child, friends will offer advice.  I’ll find tips and recipes in magazines or online and even politicians and school authorities try to help.  Shops may sell the bad stuff, but they’ll also provide organic, low-sugar, low-carb options and there’s generally a healthy alternative to McDonalds nearby.  In a word, I feel supported.

If I want to limit screens for my child on the other hand, it seems the world is conspiring against me.  Nurseries extoll the benefits of toddlers interacting with iPads, but like with sweets, just a taste can make a child want more.  Asking another parent to not offer him sweets is fine, but it’s harder to ask her to keep TVs, game consoles and tablets turned off.  In fact I’ve made her feel she’s being judged for the times she left her baby in the pram with her iPhone while she had a coffee.  I keep getting a hint of “Why would anyone deprive their offspring of something that will educate them and that they’ll enjoy?” 

Healthy food
Free to avoid unhealthy foods…

In a nutshell, we’re free to be vegans, alcoholics, hippies, free to preach a religion, free to be politically outspoken, but we’re not free to raise children away from technology.  It’s not OK.

The differences

We tech-free parents notice the little differences.  It’s not just that our children are not obsessed with Disney princesses and cartoon pigs, they are eager to learn – everything!  They play well and are tolerant, they’re very aware of little details around them, they’re helpful and good communicators.  They’re being raised entirely by people, not machines. 

We don’t believe these kids are freaky gifted geniuses.  They’re just children developing the way children did a hundred years ago, who are not being tempted away from achievement, like their peers are, by brain candy, and are never compelled to sit down on the couch, shut up, stare, and stop thinking.  They are what would be normal children, if the year was anything other than 2019.  Growing up well is a child’s most important task.  They only get one chance at it, and we’re trying not to blow it for them. 

Tech-free parents are ironically often very technical people, or they may be professionals with experience of people and technology and who think a lot about what they see.  They’re sprouting up everywhere, but until now the more vocal communities have been in Silicon Valley.

Often people expect the children of tech-free parents will be over-protected, socially-awkward children who don’t quite fit in, as if part of a prohibitive religious community.  They then end up surprised to see the opposite – confident, articulate kids who are outgoing, open-minded and afraid of nothing.  They would in fact be just normal kids if modern media hadn’t lowered the bar, as we accept iPad and TV pacifiers as the norm.

How do you go Tech-Free?

Being a tech-free parent obviously means limiting the use of screens (TVs, mobiles, iPads, computers, toys with screens), ideally to none at all.  The thinking is that the young brain doesn’t need major distractions while it’s making the most essential connections. 

At around one year of age, an infant starts properly interacting with the world around him, and taking an interest in what is going on.  If a TV is on, they’ll be unable to not focus on that, so from that age, it’s better to keep any screen turned off around them. 

As they grow a little older, make their first steps, learn their first words, they’ll want to use what you use, and do what you do, so many parents will stop using computers or mobile phones in front of the children, to avoid making them want to do the same.  It’s leading by example, and has the advantage of bringing a level of mindfulness to the parents, who start to lose their own Fear Of Missing Out, and become more focused on the child and the real world close by, even reducing compulsive phone use away from the family.  Not heading straight to a mobile device to answer a child’s question encourages creativity and imagination in the family, as you find yourself trying to get them to suggest answers, or coming up with your own theories.

It’s a trap!

The fun really starts when you have a three or four-year-old, who’s smart, mobile and very able, all qualities that make it harder to keep them away from screens.  At that age, it seems like people queue up to hurt those children’s growth and lock them in the child-screen/desire prison.  Councils decide that installing touch-screens and man-size flat panels in the street is the way forward.  Other children or grandparents want to show off something on a mobile phone.  Smartphones and social networks have made it the norm to photograph and selfie every moment of our lives.  Small businesses want to boost their business with video displays in their shop windows and it’s hard to blame them as advertising means money and business, and everyone knows screens work for that. 

Needless to say, tech-free parents become very creative in the face of these difficulties.  As the child grows you have to constantly review your position, make trade-offs between achieving the tech-free goal, and ensuring the child never ends up in an awkward situation, feeling embarrassed that they don’t know about something.  Screen-free brings obvious cognitive benefits, but it takes strong, consistent parents to make a happy child, and it takes a happy child to make a future healthy well-adjusted adult.

Understanding the problem

We’ve all met a youngster addicted to gaming who struggles with their everyday life; we know people who have been hurt by social media or others going through depression triggered by messages from TV, the Internet and their role models.  No parent wants that to happen their child, yet many are resigned to it, helpless, as if it’s inevitable: the new normal.  

It’s no secret that screen-based media are addictive.  It’s because the devices are so well made, so interactive and so full of promises, that the child will feel empowered and want to use them at any opportunity, and in today’s world that means literally all the time.  Those ubiquitous “opportunities” were simply not there a generation ago.  Parents didn’t have to worry about a child getting hooked, unless maybe they supplied the equipment themselves.  Today however, with Internet and smart devices throughout the home, with the strength of advertising promoting them, and with the way we behave towards them, addiction is a real risk.

To prove the point, look at us, “grown-ups”.  There’s never been a whole generation so compelled to check a device for notifications, so likely to prioritise digital trivia over family.  A smoker may avoid giving into the habit around their children to set a good example, but how many of us reduce our obsessive phone usage?

Pinocchio on Pleasure Island

And so we have the Pleasure Island effect, where Pinocchio is presented with a place that’s impossible for him to resist, a land of fun and games that seems too good to be true, and you can’t blame him for getting on board with the Coachman.  But all good things have a price and in the story the Island turns the boys into donkeys that will be sold for profit.  Today’s reality is different because even good children can’t avoid the digital temptation.  However they will be transformed by the experience.   The Internet is making us Like, Be, Think, Feel, in a specific way. 

This isn’t about sharing culture with our peers.  We’re not even being moulded by our social media friends. YouTube, Facebook and other Clickbait generators connect us to “recommended” content, but the artificial intelligence behind that recommendation is not trying to give us a solution we can walk away with, it is scheming to make us stay online. The sickening part is where A.I. has worked out (without the help of its human creators) that the best way to do this, is to recommend increasingly extreme content. This is not a Schwarzenegger movie. This ability machine learning has to create a rabbit hole for us to run through has literally turned people into abusers, driven children to join murderous Jihadi groups, and to self-harm or commit suicide. 

Whether we end up part of such statistics or not, machines are affecting how we think. Once sucked in to digital devices, children are forced to conform to stereotypes and to give up proper individual thinking.  With everything so satisfyingly served up to them, they’re encouraged to think less, to stagnate.

What parent or teacher would allow this to happen to a child?  Every one it seems.  Many take real pride in the fun, innovative hardware and software they’ve provided to children, even though what they’ve really done is saved themselves a load of work in engaging with the child.

As parents, we naturally want to give and help.  Often, we forget our children need space to think and be creative.  Once, I was about to say “Wow, this toy does something awesome – let me show you!” before realising the kid was happily focused on organising the toys in a toy box.  I almost ended a task he’d figured out on his own, and the thinking that goes with it, just so he could have a quick laugh at something silly for my own satisfaction.  I waited and we had our fun later on.

Outbursts like “You think plants eat soil with their roots?  I’ll tell you what really happens” only serve to make the parent feel cleverer than their toddler.  The more enlightened response is in fact “Did you work that out on your own?  That’s a really good thought!” – to encourage them to continue wanting to work things out on their own.

Bad parenting like this is positively encouraged by the media and our peers.  You’ll be pushed from all sides to do “something exciting” with your child, to the point where even the child starts asking for excitement.  Parents feel it’s wrong to let a child play with non-interactive toys, there’s not enough stimulation, so they turn on the TV or the tablet.  Teachers feel the same.  The media providers themselves know that under-stimulation is the enemy of profit, so the children are bombarded with action, rewards and excitement until somebody drags them away.

Even so-called educational content is too one-sided in thinking the child must be educated.  Often, the child needs the time and space to digest what they’ve seen, and process it fully.  The media are not designed to give a mind space.  They are designed to keep the mind occupied so it won’t take the profit it generates elsewhere.

The alternative

So this is where we are: so many chances for children to get trapped in a world where they can no longer manage without the digital.  The world won’t change overnight, so parents take little steps to mitigate the damage on their own families.  Often they don’t know many others who take the same approach.  Some parents don’t even have support from a partner.  Some work hard at this and suffer in silence.

One thing is for sure, we all benefit when we speak up.  Speak about it to schools and to nurseries, speak to other parents and childminders, to decision-makers, even to strangers!  You’ll often find somebody else has been spreading the same message, and as we all start speaking up, our presence will become impossible to ignore.  You might think things won’t get any easier for you overnight, but as more voices are being heard, we’ll start to see attitudes improving and policies changing.

We are Tech-Free Parents.  We’re part of a growing trend, and we are just starting to get vocal, in order to reclaim our freedom to let our children grow up the more natural way. 

To read more on why parents are wary of the impact mobile devices and the internet have on young minds, see Five Threats to Children from Technology

The Six Broken Promises of the Internet as the Web turns 30

2019 marks 30 years since the World Wide Web was first envisioned.  It was back in March 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his employers at CERN for a radical new networked hypertext system for sharing information.  The system he designed piggybacked on Internet infrastructure which was already growing rapidly and took advantage of the availability of micro-computers.  He programmed and delivered a first working web server, web browser and website between September and December 1990 on a NeXT cube.

The first web browser, running on the NeXTSTEP operating system
The first web browser, running on the NeXTSTEP operating system

Robert Cailliau, another hypertext visionary at CERN and Nicola Pellow soon helped develop web browsers for other operating systems including the Apple Mac System 7. Berners-Lee and Cailliau worked together to promote the technology more widely outside of the research and academia world, leading to the Web being released free to use by all in April 1993, the year NCSA Mosaic, the first popular web browser was introduced.

The People’s Internet is born

For me, the release of the World Wide Web is the point at which the Internet made the shift from being at the service of programs, programmers, files and machines, and became the People’s Internet designed to serve humans.  It wasn’t until 1994 that I started the switch to coding for the web myself.  Creating technological solutions is an important part of my life.  I’ve been close to the action over the years as the Web has enabled many new things that had been the remit of science fiction until then.  The Web spawned whole new industries, eventually driving the rise of smartphones and their apps, and I believe it has a lot more to offer. 

Recently though, I looked back at the expectations I had in previous decades, at what was believed in our professional circles and the mainstream press: a brighter future with the internet and the World Wide Web, and I realised we’ve been robbed.  It isn’t that the technological innovation has been lacking, on the contrary, but our acceptance of the changes to our daily lives that promised to be for the better has seriously backfired.  Berners-Lee himself in 2018 expressed his disappointment in an open letter at how “a handful of huge companies control how ideas and opinions are shared”.

What follows is what I see as the six great broken promises of the People’s Internet, in contrast with viewpoints of the founders of the World Wide Web.

1. The Internet will connect us to long lost friends and relatives.

Reality: Maybe, but the Internet has destroyed real closeness at home between family members.  Family dinners and together-time are polluted by the need to react to a smartphone notification or complete a level.  Some babies and tiny children will be made to stare at an iPad so they don’t disrupt a meal with friends.  Often those shared meals have become a thing of the past as we each eat in front of our own screen.  We’ve even become less good at relating with people in the workplace, or keeping in touch with close friends. 

Common Sense Media and University of Southern California (USC) led a study on 1200 parents and their teenage children in three countries that found mobile phones provoke conflict and argument every day in a fifth of Britain’s families, and more than half of parents and almost two thirds of teenagers always or very often felt the need to respond immediately to texts and other notifications.

British children think their parents are addicted to phones.  British parents think the same of their children.  So are the family members to blame?  Corporations have spent astounding sums on researching human psychology and computer interfaces, to come up with devices such as the iPhone and platforms like Facebook and YouTube, giving them that just-right, feel-good aspect that makes them hard to let go of.  Forget cigarettes and alcohol.  This may be the first time an industry has managed to create a brand new type of addiction for the masses.

Newspapers printing
Staying informed

2. We’ll be better informed.  We’ll decide the type of news we want see and have access to many more news outlets

Reality: The news selection algorithms are so good they shield us from alternative points of view.  The sources are so varied they include totally unreliable news outlets, and fake news.  Because our attention is so lucrative to the companies providing this news, their algorithms work out the best way to get us to keep coming back.  And that’s not through the quality of the information; rather through how sensational it is, such that I’m likely to be pushed to view more extreme content. 

Organisations can pay money to feed us the kind of news that will alter our behaviour, not just to make us buy things, but to radicalise us or fulfil political aims.  Companies such as Google and Facebook take the money and get that work done using A.I. systems which do all the thinking such their managers and developers can’t be held responsible for doing anything unethical.  Tim Berners-Lee says “The fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.”

3. Internet dating will help us all find a soul mate

Reality: In gyms and at hairdressers we all strive to conform to the same ideal beauty.  There are plenty of fish in the sea and most seem to be at our fingertips.  However we’ve swiped to reject so many people, people that in another time we would have loved to meet.  A picture didn’t do them justice or we never heard their voice.  Never properly interacted with them, touched their hand… The range and attractiveness of candidates is huge but the selections we make when overwhelmed with options tend to be less wise than in a real-world more restricted setting. 

When a potential match is made, there can be a long period of online chat.  Professor Joseph B Walther of UCSB notes that that people are more likely to disclose information about themselves, more quickly, online.  Research has shown that we like another person more, the more they disclose to us and the more we disclose to them.  These lengthy conversations often delay the real world meeting, which may then be a disappointment.  The person turns out to be scarily different from their meticulously maintained profile, a bit of a fake, who is good at selfies but not much else!

It follows that all those non-dating apps, which simply aim to put like-minded people in touch with one another for mutual gain, improving society’s connections, are also failing.  They are undermined by similar problems.  We think that we could do better, and we fear to commit to the face-to-face meeting, eventually giving up.  By widening our options, technology is helping us miss more opportunities than ever before.

4. With social networking we’ll have more fun and more events to enjoy

Reality: It’s true, there are more parties and events, there’s more excitement, but are we happy?  We have such high expectations now.  Feeling good depends on going to that event, posting that photo, “Liking” other people’s photos, keeping in touch with that group’s posts, so we work hard at social networking, diverting ever more time from other tasks. 

Our profile has become so important that we’re constantly buying expensive clothes, changing our face or our body, planning the next awesome Facebook post, to keep up.  In fact no matter how “perfect” we become, we always have that Fear of Missing Out.  At this rate we’ll never find happiness.

This fits with what’s happening in the brain.  Many of our social network achievements are rewarded by a dopamine spike: we feel good, excited even – it’s what Facebook wants.  I crave that feeling so I’ll do it again.  But these dopamine highs disrupt the serotonin levels, the chemical that would make us stable, contented, long-term-happy people, which explains how excitement seekers sometimes never feel happy. 

As Robert Cailliau put it “I’m not on Twitter, nor Facebook, or LinkedIn, or any of these systems, because they suck in your soul and they will not let you go. Try to get out of any of them, and you will see. They are just like some religions where apostasy is punished by death.”

Robert Cailliau and the world's first web server
Robert Cailliau and the world’s first web server

5. Technology will set us free.  We’ll be able to work anywhere

Reality: We can reach anyone, anytime, anywhere.  And they can get our immediate attention at the most inappropriate times.  Many of us find it hard to free ourselves from work, as colleagues, managers or clients can always get our attention. 

Somehow we’ve allowed the news, Twitter, email and social network notifications to follow us wherever we go as well, such that we can never really free our minds from responsibilities or distractions.  We’re like Pavlov’s dog.  What used to be quality time (coffee with a friend, time with children or at the movies) is being polluted by the way we’re now conditioned, without prompting, to check our social media accounts.  Have you ever felt that unexpected feeling of wellbeing at the end of day out spent with a smartphone that ran out of juice that morning? 

The constant distractions we’ve grown accustomed to are not just annoying.  They lessen the enjoyment of real-world meetings with friends.  They shorten our attention span and curtail our ability to be creative, observant and to achieve great things with our minds.

Dad distracted by phone
cosmo_71 Flickr

6. The Internet will make kids smarter.  New devices and apps will give them all the answers, and a head-start with technology

Reality: Grown-ups can start being productive with their first iPhone or Android device in minutes, seconds sometimes. Children and teens are typically faster still.  It’s weird to think any child will need a technological head start. 

As for making them smarter, early exposure to technology is more likely to create a dependence on non-educational content such as YouTube, games or social networking.  The time taken by these activities will encroach on school work, and on the creative and imaginative play which fuels their intelligence. 

The mental health effects these activities have on people are exacerbated by the fact that the child’s brain is forming connections at an outstanding rate.  The child feels empowered by this device that’s made hard things easy. Because of how we’ve evolved, the brain will want to focus on that at the expense of other learning.

Screen use in children is being linked to depression, self-harm and suicide outcomes, due to how children measure themselves against others on social networks and video channels, and due to cyber-bullying, and how, when searching for solutions to their typical teenage anxieties, they end up automatically begin recommended content that reinforces negative thoughts and acts.

As Sir Tim puts it “If you put a drop of love into Twitter it seems to decay but if you put in a drop of hatred you feel it actually propagates much more strongly.  And you wonder, ‘Well is that because of the way that Twitter as a medium has been built?’”

It’s no wonder that today’s children have trouble with their school work, and adjusting to the “real world”.

Fixing the web

“I was devastated.” Tim Berners-Lee is giving an interview in Washington in 2018, after the revelations of Russian hackers subverting major social networking platforms to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections.  “We demonstrated that the web had failed instead of served humanity, as it was supposed to have done, and failed in many places”.  He points the finger at the monopolies and their increasingly centralised Web, which he says “has ended up producing—with no deliberate action of the people who designed the platform—a large-scale emergent phenomenon which is anti-human.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Sir Tim wants us to fight back against the algorithms, the corporations, the monopolies, and reclaim the web as belonging to us, to humans.  The idea is to de-centralise the web.  He’s often used his celebrity status to call individuals to stand up for their rights, but now he’s gone back to what he knows well, leading a growing team of like-minded developers on a new project named “Solid”.  Its aim is to provide a new set of tools and conventions for building decentralised social applications based on linked data principles.

In the Solid world, users will have the freedom to choose where their data resides and who has access to it.  Applications are decoupled from the data they produce, meaning you are free to leave one platform at any time, and you will take your data and your social connections with you to other apps and other data storage servers.  In a world where many WhatsApp and Instagram users are despairing about those apps merging with Facebook, you can see the appeal.

For software developers, this means breaking into an existing social network market dominated by larger companies becomes achievable, as users can bring their existing data to you if they like your ideas.

You may find it reassuring that we’re not alone in seeing the cracks that are threatening the People’s Internet, and that visionaries like Tim Berners-Lee are working hard to rebuild parts of it better.  But no doubt the web giants will fight back, and there will be a lot more that will need fixing or rebuilding.  

As we pass the milestone of half the world’s population connected to the Internet, it will be down to us as decision makers, creatives and individuals to put in the time, put in the thought, make efforts, vote with our feet and make our voices heard to create a refreshed Internet that works for us.

My next post will cover how some families are working to minimise the harm technology causes to children We are Tech-Free Parents

What “little extras” will I spend my £50,000 on?

In this autumn’s budget, Philip Hammond announced schools will get a £400 million bonus in capital funding this year, described as help for schools to buy “the little extras they need”.  The funding can only be spent on capital projects like equipment and maintenance, and amounts to £10,000 for primary schools and £50,000 for secondary schools.

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer

So if you can’t spend it on staff salaries and it is a fraction of what’s needed to bring school buildings up to a satisfactory standard (that’s £6.7 billion according to the National Audit Office), how should you, the head teacher, invest this bonus?

The Chancellor reacted with surprise to claims that the payment was “condescending” or “utterly insulting” responding with his own suggestion: “Many of the schools I know would be very happy to have £50,000 or even £10,000, to buy a whiteboard or a couple of computers”.

This may seem like the obvious way to spend the cash, and no doubt a few technology companies will be much indebted to Mr Hammond for the surge in profit they can now expect, but what are the alternatives?

Technology in Schools and Nursery Schools

Large bright interactive whiteboard in a small classroom
Overpowering whiteboards are common in small nursery classrooms

The availability of technology solutions hasn’t always improved the learning environment.  I’ve seen some gloomy teaching spaces where the front of the classroom was mostly taken up by a huge white LCD flat panel that acts like a giant lightbulb.  Children’s gazes were attracted to the screen like butterflies to a flame such that they were no longer paying attention to the person in front of them.  The teacher had become obscure and redundant.  A school that owns these may consider replacing them with a more sensible equivalent, maybe even go a step further and experiment with good old blackboards to rediscover the benefits of more traditional teaching techniques.

Another renowned school recently decided to place large screens in every place a child goes.  These include giant PowerPoint presentations about food showing in the refectory during mealtimes, a large projection of the audience showing backstage at the school theatre and movies showing on a large screen in the library!  In another setting it might have had the wow factor they were going for, but in this school it just looks misguided and counterproductive, like out of a George Orwell novel.

Still from 1984 - Big Brother screen

One nursery school owner explained that their four-year olds live, play and learn with the interactive projector constantly displaying slides and videos from a recent field trip.  I can see how a teacher would have felt smug that they’d found a relevant use for the projector that helps them promote the nursery as forward thinking, but the result is too similar to the football match playing in the background while you’re on a date.  The moving picture, not quite out of sight, makes it hard to focus on human interaction.  News feeds, twitter feeds, email and Facebook alerts will come soon enough.  I don’t need my children trained in the art of being disrespectful, distracted and uninvolved before they reach primary school.

Arguably, in this nursery the repeating videos will make the children and teachers remember only the details that were captured by the digital lens.  In a self-fulfilling way, the children will be able to accurately describe what they’ve seen, over and over again in the slideshow, to the satisfaction of teachers who will have memorised the same details.  Maybe they all forgot the smells, that happy feeling, the breeze or the moisture in the air which don’t feature in photos and videos.  Have you noticed how kids who are not subjected to slideshows and videos can remember and describe so many little details that happened on a holiday long ago, which their parents had almost forgotten?

Some school teachers boast of using their interactive screens and projectors to project a burning fireplace, play background music or a show a video of birds flying while the children work on an assignment.  Where is the research validating such use as helpful to a child’s learning?

Professor Carol Dweck, Stanford University
“When people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying” Professor Carol Dweck

With the “Growth Mindset”, Psychology Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University teaches us how children who are encouraged to deal with failure by trying again or trying harder will achieve great results.  She says “no matter what your ability is, effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment”.  Today’s technology is designed to make everything feel easy to the point where once you’ve learnt a few basics, you feel you’re successful all the time.  Too much ease-of-use or too much success undermines this human skill, making the child more likely see something difficult as beyond their reach.

A global report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology and that “those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately”.  So where else is Ofsted going wrong in highlighting IT skills as an important benchmark of a quality school?  Have we been investing in ICT in our schools for the wrong reasons?

The Poisoned Gift

There’s a “Yes!” moment for each teacher when they suddenly see realisation on a child’s face as he picks up a new skill.  This moment will often come when children use IT products, whatever their age – instant rewards and fast results to show the head teacher and the parents.  It’s hard for the parents not to act impressed.  It leads us all to happily ignore the long term impact.

Often somebody in the school feels good about acquiring technology.  I personally enjoy getting hold of the coolest new tech, the smell of new kit coming out of its box, and I’m not alone.  I like showing it off to colleagues, and letting them see what I can do with it.  It gives me a buzz when I see they’re impressed and they’re talking about me.  Some teaching staff might learn how to use this new kit and think “technology gives me more authority”.

Some just want to buy a gift.  “It’s expensive and glamourous so it must be of value.”  A headmaster might want to be regarded as generous, and ICT equipment provides an easy way to spend a decent amount of money, for something people see as an instant reward, regardless of whether it is actually useful or detrimental to children’s development and learning.

The bottom line is that while some of us have a nerdy need to acquire new tech, imposing it on children in our care isn’t always to their benefit.

If you run a search for the benefits of interactive whiteboards or interactive projectors, you’ll find a lot of results confirming these benefits.  The same companies who sell this equipment (Avocor, BVS, Clevertouch, Epson, Hitatchi…) are frequently the authors of these articles, or sponsor them.  Even worse, academia is often reluctant to challenge the benefits of a product that’s perceived as useful to education, because schools are such an important thing to us.  The perverse thing is that in order to sell their products to schools, corporations can therefore spread their own propaganda unchallenged, shielded behind the revered institution of education.  You simply can’t argue against “we’re doing it for the children!”

Proponents will argue for the time-saving value of interactive whiteboards, where a teacher doesn’t have to erase the board and write out the lesson. Children can write less, as lessons will be printed or distributed electronically.  As psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California would point out, that’s forgetting that the act of writing cements knowledge in the brain in a way typing, for example, cannot.

Waking up

Classroom with chalkboard
Traditional chalkboard-based teaching set to make a comeback

Schools in Silicon Valley such as the Waldorf school of the Peninsula, counting technology pioneers among their parents have done the opposite to what everyone expected, actually returning to chalk boards, and down-to-earth, old fashioned learning, and banning iPads and smartphones.  The location isn’t an accident.  Some very skilled technologists (from Apple, Google, Yahoo…) raise their kids there.  They know the harm digital devices have done to young brains.  They also know that no research has been done on the effect of today’s technology on children as they grow into adulthood, because technology has never before been as pervasive as it is now.

As I wrote in my previous post, the networked platforms such as YouTube or news sites that our children will access soon after we’ve introduced them to digital devices, have been designed to hook into the reward-based circuits of the brain.  Sean Parker, a Facebook founder, has worried publicly about the consequences of the effect of Facebook’s algorithms on children.

Unsurprisingly, Apple and Google both rushed out mindfulness and screen-time reporting features in their products this year, a small concession as the world starts to wake up to lifetimes being wasted online.  In light of the plasticity of the brain, the way the brain rewires itself especially fast in children to create the machine that powers a human intelligence perfectly suited to the world it perceives, it’s particularly worrying to have interactive computer screens, large or small, competing for the child’s cognition.  Add the A.I. algorithms powering the most popular sites to the mix, and it feels like a perfect storm.  There has never been a time when computer technology has touched so many aspects of every person’s life like now.

Coming back to those Waldorf parents.  These Silicon Valley technology experts can tell you how none of the advanced technology we have today was available to them growing up.  If they didn’t drive the change themselves, they knowingly experienced the shift, later in life, from a far less connected world to one where all the devices, networks and applications we have today gradually emerged, showing their usefulness and some downsides.  It’s that experience that helped give them an edge, and the absence of technology in their early years actually fuelled their creativity.

As children, they didn’t know what world they would be in 20 years later, and this is something we still don’t know.  I would argue that a late starter in technology is more likely to get excited about technology, science and other things when the time comes.  If I teach a young child to use the latest iPad, am I giving him current IT skills that will be useful to develop a career 20 years from now or will it have been today’s equivalent of learning to interact with punch cards?  Even worse, I may be wiring his brain to operate in future decades within the narrow parameters of a world viewed through a tablet touchscreen.

Punch card operators
Programming machines using punch cards

Who is in charge?

Many head teachers feel they have to support the official view of technology, but deep down they already know they want to save the children from being pushed into it too early, as what matters is the long game.  They are aware that mobile devices and electronic whiteboards have been thrust on teaching staff who will do their best to run with them, but haven’t even been trained in basic health and safety.  Often teachers are afraid of their expensive new screen, and won’t even turn it off for fear of breaking something.

An interactive LCD whiteboard is a large TV.  We have guidelines on how much TV adults and children should be exposed to.  Yet try to ask a teacher to advise you at what point the screen must be turned off, what proportion of screen time in a school day might damage children’s eyes or what negative side-effects its use might have on a child’s brain development and attention span.  When you see them behave like a child caught doing something naughty – most do – try finding the person who can offer that training, the person in charge of regulating the use of the screens.  Good luck with that!  Instead, you’ll hear “it must be ok because all the schools do it”.

So let’s think twice before spending that 400 million we have coming.  Maybe it doesn’t make sense to make an ICT gift to be used every day in the small classes.  If it’s going to be IT, let’s make it age-appropriate and find other ways to be Outstanding, instead of imposing it on the children.

Having looked beyond the “obvious”, let’s look a few ideas that might suit your school better.  You could refurbish classrooms, the library or the toilets, work to reduce drafts, improve lighting, warmth and airflow to make the school a pleasant and safe place where there is nothing bad to distract from learning, or implement accessibility projects for pupils with disabilities.  You can add outdoor play equipment, outdoor blackboards and learning equipment or convert teaching accommodation for specialist use.   Making the staff happier and the school efficient could be done by adding new infrastructure for the admin staff, furniture or new storage for teachers, or improving the teachers’ lounge.  Other improvements might be enhancing school security, implementing energy efficiency projects or conservation projects.  Which expenditures are suitable (and eligible) is very much down to your school’s circumstances.

Increasing numbers of people are starting to take a long-term view on what’s best for the children and are taking fast rewards, technology-company incentives and government guidelines with a pinch of salt.  It’s only a matter of time before this becomes the accepted view.  If enlightened schools make a statement on where this “little extras” cash gets spent, and then the next grants, it will help other schools want to research this further and come to the right conclusion themselves.  This will tilt the balance faster, away from the inevitability of technology for young pupils.  Parents, teachers, head teachers and the government will focus once again on what’s most important for the children, their wellbeing and happiness in the decades to come.

Increasing numbers of people are starting to take a long-term view on what’s best for the children and are taking fast rewards, technology-company incentives and government guidelines with a pinch of salt.  It’s only a matter of time before this becomes the accepted view.  If enlightened schools make a statement on where this “little extras” cash gets spent, and then the next grants, it will help other schools want to research this further and come to the right conclusion themselves.  This will tilt the balance faster, away from the inevitability of technology for young pupils.  Parents, teachers, head teachers and the government will focus once again on what’s most important for the children, their wellbeing and happiness in the decades to come.

If you would like to find out more about the individuals and families who are standing up to Technology’s invasion in our children’s lives, I recommend reading my blog post We are Tech-Free Parents. For more about the reasons parents, teachers and head-teachers have to be wary, see Five Threats to Children from Technology

Five Threats to Children from Technology

When UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote a letter to big tech firms a week ago accusing them of “collectively turning a blind eye to a whole generation of children being exposed to the harmful emotional side effects of social media prematurely” the response on Twitter was not fully supportive.  One user stated “I worry that a generation is being exposed to the emotional side effects of Jeremy Hunt” but then Twitter, is probably not the right place to look for people concerned by the effect of the overuse of technology on children, the people I call Tech-Free Parents.

These are people who challenge the accepted wisdom that technology must be embraced.  Not all of them are living off the land, re-enacting The Good Life.  One thing they have in common is an appreciation of the positive uses and the dangers of modern technology.  They understand how children are at risk growing up in a society that doesn’t fully control the information systems it uses daily.  They get how easy it has become to let your guard down and make yourself vulnerable, and to allow technology to affect your health, drive and personality.

1. Safety and Security

If you lost money following an email promising 50% of a 20 million dollar cash package shipped from the Central Bank of Nigeria, you will eventually find somebody to give you sympathy… once they’re done laughing.  More seriously though, scammers have been targeting children to act as money mules, to part from money or to install malware.

In 2017, an eight year old was in Australian newspapers after receiving instant messages from an impersonator using the username “the real Justin Bieber” through a music app on her iPad.  The messages read “Who wants to win a 5minute video call with me?”… “All you need to do is send me a photo of you nak**”… then it got worse.  The same ploy has been used by many and has led to arrests in the UK and America.  The worst part is that once you’ve been scammed into doing something embarrassing on the Internet, the perpetrator has a hold on you, so you can easily be blackmailed into increasingly bad things.

2. Privacy

If you’ve managed to be a proud parent but resist the urge to share any of your kid’s details online, well done!  It takes some doing in this day and age.  But are your child’s photos out there nonetheless, posted by well-meaning “friends” and helpfully tagged using Facebook’s facial recognition?  Did a relative accidentally let their social networking iPhone app read and upload their Contacts?  Now your family’s details have ended up on those servers without you doing a thing.

Taking it one step further, if we’re all just six degrees of separation from each other, and we’re all confiding in Facebook with regards to our friends and all our likes and dislikes and thousands of location-tagged photographic memories, how much damage could somebody cause with access to Facebook’s database?

Datacentre servers hosting your social network information - how secure are they?

Forget the “legal” ways available to advertisers and the likes of Cambridge Analytica to hook into the social network’s data.  How often has the database been lost, or forgotten in the back of taxi?  Are their staff content enough to never be tempted by a terrorist group or an enemy state to hand over a USB stick?  It would have been impossible for Hitler to exterminate his targets with such ruthless efficiency without extensive, well-ordered lists of people’s names and characteristics.  How long before a new similarly radical word leader forces Facebook to hand over access?

3. Wellbeing

It’s great that we no longer get a tanned face from the radiation of massive old CRT TVs and monitors; flat screens are a great improvement.  But still, I wonder how healthy it is for children to sit in a classroom with the black-out blinds down, their faces bathed in the purple glow of a massive mesmerising interactive whiteboard that stays on all day, while the teacher wonders why the schoolchildren don’t make eye contact.

Ever spent too long playing a video game and needed a moment to “come down” to real life?  Paediatrician and researcher Dimitri Christakis recently pointed out how content designed for small children such as Baby Einstein moves so fast it bears no similarity to the real world.  Children growing accustomed to its pace, rewire their brain to expect the same from their surroundings, resulting in difficulties concentrating and generally coping with real life which they perceive as too slow moving.

Dimitri Christakis - Children's brains rewired by digital content

What about those times you googled something online, found something else, and wished you hadn’t.  Maybe it made you feel sick, maybe it made you curious to see more.  What if you had been younger and more impressionable, vulnerable – how would it have altered your personality?  Could it have changed the things you did, or the things you let others do to you?

4. Emotional intelligence

Papers use this term as if it’s the latest craze in management techniques.  It’s a set of skills that encompasses understanding what makes you tick, relating to others and how to stop them pushing your buttons, believing in yourself, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, non-verbal communication, and being the kind of person that naturally puts their peers at ease. In other words it’s being a normal decent human being.

Getting friends on Facebook or sharing virtual worlds with fellow gamers requires its own skills, but won’t teach you emotional intelligence.  Playing with other children and adults, having arguments, sharing victories, joys, disappointments, these are some ways that help people become good at relationships.

5. Free Time

With more computing power and interconnectivity available in each of their pockets than were available to NASA astronauts not so long ago, humans should be delivering levels of productivity unheard of, in their personal time, and having more quality one-to-one time with their families and friends.  Instead something else seems to have happened.  We fill our spare time with instant news addiction, reading Facebook, following trending tweets and videos, stalking, ranting…. It isn’t that we want to do these things, but the devices and apps are so well built, so beautiful, their AI knows us so well, that we feel compelled to use them.

God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains

Sean Parker – Former president of Facebook

Sean Parker, a former president of Facebook recently explained in Philadelphia how as the inventors of Facebook, they had built a system that creates positive feedback loops to make the users feel good.  As they were developing it they asked: “how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”.  Parker says “It’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.  The quote that made headline news though was “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”.

Sean Parker, Facebook, God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains

Given the circumstances, Tech-Free Parents need to be way more cautious than would have been necessary in previous years.  In a world that’s constantly changing, they have a tough job.  They have to work to mitigate the immediate and longer-term risks to their children.  At the same time they need to give them the tools they need to ensure they can grow up naturally in our information-based society, without it sapping their potential, whilst still developing expertise (when the time comes) in the high-tech skills they will need to enter higher education and the job market.

Given the circumstances, Tech-Free Parents need to be way more cautious than would have been necessary in previous years.  In a world that’s constantly changing, they have a tough job.  They have to work to mitigate the immediate and longer-term risks to their children.  At the same time they need to give them the tools they need to ensure they can grow up naturally in our information-based society, without it sapping their potential, whilst still developing expertise (when the time comes) in the high-tech skills they will need to enter higher education and the job market.

If you would like to find out more about the individuals and families who are standing up to the way technology is invading our children’s lives, I recommend reading my post We are Tech-Free Parents