Children, Teens and DigiTech

Technology, education and pre-teen years

I seem to be having a number of discussions with parents (particularly mothers) about the quantity and type of technology that is being used within schools for the purposes of education.

Screentime and homework
The biggest concern, especially for parents of children in younger age groups, has been children only being able to access homework via their smartphones. The parent’s concern is mostly around the issue of limiting their child’s screen time – not being able to do so if they need it for their homework. 
Parent’s who have raised this concern with me have expressed the fear that they may be the only parent who has this concern, and they don’t have enough agency to make any change against the school their child attends. 
For these parents, I ask them if there are other parents who feel the same and, if there are, to go together to raise their concerns with the school. We often think we are the only ones who feel a certain way and do not want to speak up in case we are a lone voice in a crowd. But, it is often that others feel the same as we do, but are also concerned they are the only ones to be so. 
Focus and distraction
From a neuro-cyberpsychology perspective I have a lot of concern for the level of technology / screen based use in the education of young people. Using constantly shifting information and media reduces the brains capacity for ‘deep’ information processing – resulting in rapid attention shifting/decreased ability to sustain attention and reduced ability to deliberate. It reduces the ability to pay attention and focus while increasing distractibility. The brain is still growing at super-speed at this age – and is still building those key neural pathways for overall (although are still neuroplastic in adulthood) brain structure and sets the groundwork for adult behaviour and capabilities. 
Children of this age should not have the kind of exposure they do to screens and content that they do. It is a parent’s prerogative as to how much screen exposure a child gets, but schools and teachers should minimise engagement in online content and should not be giving them homework that can only be/is mostly accessed via a screen.
Left-behind or left out?
I often hear the argument that they will be ‘left behind’ their peers if they do not engage in digital technology. But this is not true. Just look at how little exposure the big tech CEO’s (the very people who develop the hard and software used) give their children to digital technology. 
What is of greater relevance is the notion of children being teased or ostracised by peer-groups because they don’t have the same access as others in the group.
Post-apocalyptic 'educational' content
The second concern is some the type of content that children are exposed to, as part of their education. A concerned mum recently asked me to review a hyper-realistic animation video her 10 year old son had to watch as part of the English curriculum. The is video part of The Literacy Shed materials available for educational use – and can be viewed here. 
Having been disturbed by the video her son had to watch, the mum found other  parents who were equally  concerned about the content. 
I suspect that not all parents would like their pre-teen children to be exposed to action-based or violent content – whether animated, AI generated, real or CGI. Even if the content is used for ‘educational purposes’. Surely there is plenty of alternative content that can be used to achieve exactly the same educational purposes that is not of an intense or violent nature or has triggering potential?
De-sensitisation and information processing
I’m guessing a child would need to watch the video a number of times in order to be able to answer the questions. Some psychologists refer to repeated exposure to disturbing/extreme content as ‘fear conditioning’ and studies show that constant exposure to this type of  content can lead to desensitisation to violence, decrease in empathy and suppression of effective information processing. Although the studies were done on older video-gamers, it seems a little ironic to me that children are expected to process information to answer specific questions after repeated watching of post-apocalyptic/violent material that may reduce their ability to process information. 
Pre-teens and peer acceptance
Around the double-digit-age mark, children start separating their self-identity-base from the family, creating bonds with peers and are beginning to feel pressure to conform. They are hyper-sensitive to criticism and resist the possibility of being viewed as an outsider. So if a child feels uncomfortable with this type of content, they are unlikely to admit as much to teaches and peers – especially if their peers are playing/watching a lot of violent video games (which a surprising number are at this age). 
Developmental pace and emotional safeguarding
Every child is different and develops at a different pace to others – so what will trigger or soothe them differs accordingly. One 9 year old viewing the content as being ‘cool’ is no indication that all children at a similar age will feel just as ‘cool’ about it.
The context of the video watching plays a role in how children feel. For some children watching a potentially ’scary’ movie or content could feel safe when they are with a trusted adult/parent – where they know they are physically, emotionally and psychologically protected and safe-guarded.
Watching the same content on their own, in front of peers or within a school environment will have a different impact – as they will not feel that same level of safeguarding that comes from those they trust to protect them. 
Social developmental and online risk
From a developmental perspective, this is the age range that children are most vulnerable to the internet and online harms/risks. This is when they are starting to learn the differences between right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice. They are not ‘little adult’s’. They are psychologically incapable of making as much sense of the world as grown-ups are.
As every child mentally develops at different rates, so what is ok for one, will be very much not ok for another. Boys are also more vulnerable and less resilient than girls at age 9/10 y.o. – so it is interesting that the content in the video is focussed on more male-based characteristics of fighting, defending and conquering. 
Personality and hyper-sensitivity
From a personality perspective, some people are a lot more hyper-sensitive than others and more vulnerable when exposed to external stimuli. They feel more deeply and have a stronger brain mirroring network – which means that they are highly socially and emotionally intelligent and are more likely to internally experience similar emotions, feelings and actions of others (virtual or in-person) they are watching or engaging with.
Exposure to this type of content for a highly-sensitive 9-10 year old would, therefore, be experienced at a much deeper level than for others of the same age. 
Do phones belong in schools?

This is a highly sensitive and polarising topic. Mobile phones have been banned in schools in France, Italy and Portugal. In October 2023 the UK government announced that ‘Mobile phone use to be banned during the school day, including at break time’, in an attempt to tackle online bullying, decrease distractions and increase attention and focus. 

A recent Guardian article reports on some of the benefits of reducing hyper-connectivity in the school environment and the resulting increase in attention and face-to-face connectivity. It show-cases a Massachusetts (USA) school that has introduced a Light Phone with minimal functionality, that results in less time spent on screens, fewer distractions and more meaningful interactions in and out of classes.  

A Rutgers University–New Brunswick study found that mobile use during educational sessions can reduce overall test scores. 

The study found that having a device didn’t lower students’ scores in comprehension tests within lectures but did lower their scores in the end-of-term exam by at least 5 percent, or half a grade. This finding shows for the first time that the main effect of divided attention in the classroom is on long-term retention.

In addition, when the use of electronic devices was allowed in class, performance was also poorer for students who did not use devices as well as for those who did’.

What is the 'digital technology use in schools' solution?

That is not an easy question to answer.

We are still in the middle of a digital technology social experiment – on-boarding all available technology and finding out the longer-term (positive and negative) consequences as we go along. Sometimes after investing a lot of money and social capital into the said technology. 

It will take us a few decades to really understand the human and social consequences of our digital technology use in the education system. But, it does seem that teachers and parents needs to take a more cautionary approach to what and how much digital integration is included.

Maybe we need to revert to a greater degree of ‘non-digital education’. It worked for many generations, and still has that capacity to be a highly effective form of learning.