Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away…
Clay Shirky

Why I think you are completely right

Thank you for writing this. As a parent of a child at school in Australia where the 1 to 1 technology program was introduced about 4 years ago, I can tell you that the experiment has not been a success for us.

There are many reasons other than educative ones that we didn’t want our children’s highschool to take this program on. But I will just list a few things, being as brief as I can, stifling the urge to rant like a haggard, frenzied wreckage.

I wanted to sit down and write a considered response, but I find that my time is too taken up with dealing the the results of the technology disaster that befell our home. So please excuse the less than consise response.

After having the school give us their cyber safety talks and the usual glib, often impractical nonsense about keeping computers in a public area and monitoring usage, it was surprising that they then gave each of the children at the school a tablet (laptop) that could hide under a pillow.

As concerned parents we do monitor content, we do keep an eye on and have rules about where the technology is, and we do try very hard to restrict the amount of time our kids spend on line. We notice that the longer they are staring at the screen the less friendly they become. (even as young adults)

We would have to be trained ninjas on crack cocaine to catch a child of any age on the wrong sites. With school work books and text books a glance from the other side of the room will show you what they are up to. A quick flick of the wrist on their part will hide what they have been up to on line when you are next to them.

The internet and the accompanying technology are wonderful tools. But they are only tools, and to mindlessly and completely exchange things which have worked for so long for things so obviously fraught with problems is bizarre to us.

I have a saying in my house, “boredom is the hallway you walk down towards a good idea.” I think boredom plays a valuable part in educating a child — it provides a form of resilience and encourages creativity. There is not much chance for boredom with a glittering laptop toy in front of you.

I am a touch typist. I can type an entire book, without looking at the screen or the keyboard…. this is useful for rapid data entry, but I can do that without absorbing a single detail of what I read. The process of reading, and then writing with a pen or pencil, uses different neurological pathways and is more effective in allowing the absorbtion of knowledge.

Many of my friends have children who regularly watch movies and access social media in class. The teachers have no idea. How would they? It is hard enough to get ideas across to a room full of people without engaging in individualised crowd control. (this is one of the reasons why, as parents, we all try to get our kids into schools where the behaviour is generally better, we want the teachers teaching not supervising).

Our school, and many of the schools I have canvassed (whilst looking desperately for somewhere that can manage technology effectively) are in complete denial about this. They all say their blocks and controls are keeping all the kids on task, but all you have to do is ask the kids… there is a disparity between the two positions!

Our children’s school puts out surveys for the students and expect them to answer truthfully about how they use technology, a lot of kids I have spoken to say they would never tell the truth on a survey in case they got into trouble (and perhaps in case the toys were taken away).

On a personal level, the laptop coming home was a distraction for our first child, fortunately, it didn’t arrive until she was 15 and already had very good study habits and excellent self control. It still provides a distraction for her, she still finds herself losing valuable assignment and study time, but eventually she may gain control and hopefully become more physically active in the process.

Our second child is ADD. She received the laptop in grade 8. She was not ready for this. We had only just got her back into reading chapter books. She was fabulously creative. She spent her days making things, drawing, painting, and being upside down in the back yard. The day the laptop came home was the last day I ever saw her read a book. Even her English set books are never read.

She now has a diagnosed screen addiction — not to the frightening levels I have read about, but bad enough that she has nearly stopped doing her school work all together.

You may say that she obviously has other issues and I can’t blame the laptops. I will say, oh yes I can. Obviously a kid with ADD is going to struggle a bit at school and the need to develop her own forms of coping with having a less usual learning style in a school system that favours the focussed. Obviously we were always going to be on our toes helping our daughter, but putting a distraction of that magnitude into the hands of someone who is so much more easily distracted.. who has an intrinsically addictive personality… I have had the glib comments from the special ed teachers — none of them with their own children I might add - about how the keyboard makes it easier for the kids to get their thoughts down.. perhaps, but the price we pay for that is too high. Perhaps instead, she needs to spend more time learning to write and read from paper to develop that scaffolding she will need so badly when she is trying to earn a living and have a contented life.

The downward spiral of our child’s education began with that laptop.

Her school is unable to block inappropriate websites. All she needs to do is google ‘my school has firewalls, how do I get around them’ and about 3000 other helpful teenagers and techno nerds have taken the time to post some solutions to her problem.

Once her school work began to degrade and she hit 15 years, she began using her technology to make private arrangements, to post things that could have a terrible effect on her, later, too late for her to change what has gone before. Getting up to mischief she could not have arranged without her laptop or a smart phone.

She began to look to social media for information about her value as a human being. She picked up on all manner of horrible applications, websites and ideas that we had no control over and often don’t find out about until it is too late, if ever.

Yes, you can and should talk to your teenagers, but sometimes they are very unlikely to listen. Especially if their less wise opinions and ideas are being reinforced from the outside. From a glittering toy which presents a soma filled wonderland of la la with real life screened out.

The smart phone and the laptop have put a dangerous tool into the hands of people who are still developing. In the teen years the brain is rewiring and the executive function seems to be up the spout. So why are we giving people who will never be less motivated, less controlled and less emotionally clever, a tool that gives them the power to do so many silly things?

Why has our government and most of our schools given our children something that undermines parental authority?

Our home life has become a nightmare of supervision and arguments. No computer in our house is accessible without passwords. We have to log out of the family computer every time we walk away from it. This isn’t just to stop her using it, it is to stop her accessing the router and computer controls and changing the settings to suit herself.

At night, all technology goes off at 9pm. We take our daughter’s laptop, her phone, the keyboards from the family computers and the television aerial into our room and lock the door. If we don’t do this, she gets up in the middle of the night and gets the devices from where ever they are. This is not good for sleep. She will still occasionally manage to steal a key (for later raids), or sneak something into her room.. This is not healthy for family relationships.

Because of what is possible to organise on a machine we have no choice but to let her use, we have to be incredibly vigilant about what she is up to. We can’t simply rely on having a good relationship. In turn, of course, our relationship is further strained by the extra vigilance. We have to probe into areas she holds as private, because if we don’t, and she winds up in real danger…

In the old days we took a break from our work by sitting down. Now we are told to take a break by standing up. The human body needs to move. The computer is a great office and work tool. It is a fantastic resource for information and ideas. But it is only one resource and the fact that it is also entertainment means that I now have to really push our kids to get outside and exercise. I find this so strange. My childhood was spent trying to stay outdoors. I don’t think evolution can catch up with this new idea of sitting glued to one screen or another within one generation.

…. and don’t get me started on the amount of plastic waste and other waste being created by the incessant need to upgrade. The nature of the technology drives the replacement of the machines. .. but that is another story.

I guess what I am trying to say is that we know that technology is here and very, very useful, but to allow it to completely replace everything that has gone before, so quickly and without any restrictions, is foolish and harmful.

The introduction of the devices to people who are so young is, to our mind, ill-conceived. My daughter’s doctor says he estimates about 4% of kids are getting addicted to screens — that is they can’t control their use, they are often in denial about it, often lie about it and their use of screens is having a very negative effect on their lives in general.

That’s a lot of kids. Lots of lives.

thanks for reading.

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