Smart Phones, Stupid Kids

Yes, we survived the blood moon. No we did not prep for the apocalypse. Yes, I did glance sideways at my zombie survival pack during “Fear the Walking Dead” last night.

But in the end, I rolled out of bed at zero-dark-thirty today, and headed out to earn a living.


Ever since the advent of smartphones, we’ve been listening to alleged “experts” tell us how these little computers are going to make our children stupid. They degrade communication. They make kids anti-social. They discourage active learning.

As I was driving to work this morning, I was listening to Brian and Larry on WMAL – the only morning talk show I can tolerate, as a former broadcaster – discussing this article from the Washington Post with their listeners. Now, I’m not a big radio call-in person, given the fact that I’m a former radio morning show host and news anchor, and I have no need to hear myself on the air, and I can only listen to WMAL up to a certain point in my commute before it starts to fade out, so I’m not sure where the discussion ended up, but I will say, I’ve never wanted so badly to call in as I did this morning.

A couple of Fairfax County, VA teachers are writing a book about the decline in kids’ ability to communicate and reason as the result of digital technologies.

“They are good at telling me the who, what, where and when — anything Google can tell them…The ability to make connections seems to have vanished.”

[…]

They say the free periods that are part of their school schedule have deteriorated from lively talk among students and teachers to silent screen reading, each student in a little world. Online homework assignments are taking twice as long as they would if the student read a paper textbook, because programs are sometimes difficult to load and students cannot resist the temptation to play around on the same devices.

I can see how this would be disturbing. I find myself doing the same thing – playing around on the device until the information I need loads, because I get bored waiting. I get it. I also understand the concern about the inability to make connections with other humans. I find texting and emailing much more comfortable than face-to-face interaction, but that may be because I’m a painful introvert, who finds it agonizing to spend time in crowds, and who has to take a day to decompress after any social event.

I do get it.

But ultimately, I think the onus of ensuring that your kids don’t grow up to be socially deficient and downright stupid because they spend their days with their faces buried in their electronics, is on you as a parent.

I hate the dumb texting shortcuts kids use today to communicate, so I ensured that my children used proper English – even in emails and text messages. Yes, I did correct their grammar and syntax. Yes, I did force them to use full words, instead of the usual “how r u?” garbage. And when they fell into using what I call “textard” in their written communication with me, my usual response to said text was, “SPEAK ENGLISH!”

Yes, they learned, and yes, to this day, I get complete sentences, correct grammar, and good spelling even in text messages. My kids write lengthy texts, because I taught them that clear communication is important and even the occasional slip in grammar and spelling will be corrected to ensure they understand their mistakes.

I understood that the parents of today have to keep up with technology if they want to remain close to their offspring. Yes, I text. Yes, I send them funny pictures from my phone. Yes, I communicate with Daniel via FaceTime (Sarah has an Android phone, so she doesn’t have the app). Technology allows me to remain close with my kids and to communicate with them instantly. I learned how to use it, because a) it is convenient, and b) because I know they do, and I’d rather learn to take full advantage of these technologies in order to stay in touch with them, than resist and risk losing that closeness we have.

As for the concerns about making connections, I’m not sure they’re valid, and I think they’re completely dependent on other factors in the home. I insisted that when either or both kids were home, we’d have dinner together. Dinner wasn’t a time to play on your phone, but to eat and hang out with your family. There were a few times I would yell at Danny to put the damn phone down, and there were a few times he yelled at me for the same thing, but generally speaking, we communicated and had relationships outside that little screen.

The relationships between parents and kids are the basis for their other human interactions. Danny has friends with whom he has formed what I hope will be lasting bonds. These friendships aren’t based in texts and snapchats, but are supplemented and supported by those platforms, and allow the kids to keep in touch – especially now that they’re in different colleges, miles away from one another. In other words, teach the kid to have solid human interactions at home, and they will have solid human interactions outside of the home. Once those are established, the phone becomes a tool to facilitate those personal interactions, instead of a substitute for them.

The other advantage of kids texting to one another is that it allows them the time to examine what their friend said in detail and craft their answer accordingly, instead of rambling over one another without actually listening to what their interlocutor said. I find myself looking closer at what Danny and Sarah write, and reading it several times to ensure I understand their meaning before replying. In a text message they take more time to respond to one another, and ostensibly, they make more effort to respond correctly and completely.

The one thing that does concern me is the passive learning kids seem to do when heavily integrated with these technologies. Got a question? They’ll search for the answer on their phones and provide it toute suite. The problem is that they essentially suck up information without exercising their ability to analyze it. It’s easy to Google a reply, but can you extricate logical conclusions from said information? Can you look at the answer you just found on the Internet and understand the “why” and the “how,” instead of just the “what”?

Learning is not and should not be just siphoning information from the web and regurgitating the answer at test time. The smart phone will not teach kids how to assess the information they are seeing, nor will it teach them to glean important points from it or even judge its accuracy. Hence the prevalence of all sorts of false memes on the Internet. We have forgotten how to do actual research, and that’s worrisome. It’s one thing to be able to Google some keywords or phrases, but it’s quite another to be able to analyze the content and judge its veracity. This, more than anything, is where I worry my kids will fall behind. I taught them as much as I could, but the attraction of the technology is that it makes research easy. Unfortunately, it leaves logical assessments and judgments in the dust, and that, in my uneducated opinion, is what we really need to worry about.

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As for collaboration and conversation, I think the smartphone can be an invaluable tool, and the panic about these gadgets making kids dumb is a bit overblown.

YMMV

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