Digital Dementia – Guidelines for educators regarding technology use in school settings

Girls using phonesMounting research indicates unrestricted use of technology (cell phones, internet, TV) by children is resulting in negative impact on physical and mental health, social wellbeing, and academic performance, suggesting a cautionary approach toward the use of technology in school settings.  As rates of technology addiction soar, children and youth are presenting with problematic behaviours and disorders that are not well understood by health and education professionals. Obesity, developmental delay, sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, aggression, social phobia, and inability to pay attention or learn, are all associated with technology overuse bringing into question “Are the ways in which we are educating and raising children with technology sustainable”? This article will profile recent research on the impact of education technology on attention and learning, review technology evaluation and screening tools, and propose school-based technology guidelines and interventions to achieve Balanced Technology Management in education settings.

Recent Research

Both Canada and the US report declining academic performance in literacy, science and math. Why? South Korea recently coined the phrase “Digital Dementia” to describe what is becoming a worldwide phenomenon in youth, permanent memory loss and inability to focus, causally linked to technology overuse. Journal of Computers and Education recently reported that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content. Mounting research indicates eminent dangers of WiFi and cell phones on human health, as well as escalating rates of mental illnesses associated with technology overuse, such as adhd, autism, and technology addictions. Further studies demonstrate that children who have unrestricted technology use at home, often come to school sleep deprived impacting academic performance, yet research indicates that parents and teachers continue to favour unrestricted technology use.

Neuroanatomical Changes

Gary Small’s research showed pruning of neuronal tracks to frontal cortex in children who overuse videogames, bringing into question, what are the effects of unrestricted technology in the school setting? The brain triples in size in the 0-2 year old through synaptic connection formation, heavily influenced by environmental stimuli, or lack thereof. Prior to entering school, young children are wiring their brains to be stimulus/response mechanisms, devoid of empathy, impulse control, or executive function. Whether parents and teachers want to admit it or not, we are witnessing the de-evolution of the human species as a result of prevalent and unrestricted technology overuse, and both primary and secondary causal factors for technology addiction need to be considered in order to reverse technology’s destructive process.

Evaluation and Screening

Families with technology addictions are already seeking professional help, as soon will be whole schools. A study by Japan’s Ministry of Education has concluded that over half a million Japanese children aged 12-18 are addicted to internet activities, and consequently is seeking government funding assistance for interventions such as outdoor “fasting camps” and other strategies to reduce the use of cell phones, computers, and hand held gaming devices. Assigning qualified counsellors to treat group-based addictions will break our already strained health and education systems. Restricting family technology use cannot be regulated or legislated by government, although maybe school technology use can. Creating sustainable futures for our technology addicted culture needs to include broad sweeping initiatives which screen and address technology addictions, and build family and school capacity.   Despite this growing research showing the down-side of technology, many education professionals continue to escalate education technology use, while failing to evaluate the efficacy of technology programs toward achieving long term academic goals. Continued use of non-evidenced-based technologies in school settings could be considered an unprecedented experiment of epic proportion, one which may result in pervasive illiteracy in a whole generation of children. Teachers also fail to evaluate individual student appropriateness for specific technologies. Children who are high users of entertainment technologies, such as video games, pornography, Facebook, and texting, are already attention deficit, indicating the need for restricted technology usage in school. Schools fail to routinely screen children or youth for technology overuse, and consequently fail to provide necessary technology education and reduction strategies for students and their parents.

Guidelines and Interventions

Educational focus in the primary grades should be on achieving literacy, considered the foundation for learning. As technology prohibits attainment of literacy (computers don’t teach children to print), technology restrictions should be in place for grades K-3, and used judiciously for grades 4-7. Teaching children to print has proven to enhance literacy, as well as extend to enhanced performance in all subjects. Knowing how to produce letters and numbers subconsciously, allows the brain to focus on the specific academic tasks such as spelling and math. Yet, 5% of primary teachers don’t teach printing at all, and the rest spend an average of 14 minutes per day on printing instruction, which is insufficient to achieve printing skill. Children who can’t print demonstrate poor letter recognition for reading, and produce slower output for math, spelling, and sentence production. If teachers are expecting children to print, (90% of graded output in elementary settings is produced with a pencil), they better start teaching it.

The need for universal education regarding the negative impact of technology on attention and learning is imperative, and requires a collaborative approach by both education and health professionals.  Zone’in Programs Inc. offers both live workshops and recorded webinars by trained occupational therapists to help students, parents and educators better understand the negative impact of technology on child development and learning, These Foundation Series Workshops/Webinars also offer a variety of useful tools and techniques to evaluate and screen students for technology overuse. The Foundation Series Workshops/Webinars follow the Balanced Technology Management concept where adults manage balance between activities which promote optimal growth and success, with technology use. Examples of handouts are the Technology Guidelines for Teachers, Technology Screening Tool, Technology Schedule, Technology Diet, Technology Rx Pad, Unplug’in Parent Brochure, and Ten Steps to Unplug Children from Technology. Cris Rowan, CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. has also recently published “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children” available on Amazon.com for health and education professionals. School media literacy programs are a good place to start with student technology education. Zone’in Programs Inc. offers schools the Live’in Resource Guide, as well as the Unplug’in Game as technology education tools for students. These two programs advocate for schools to participate in a one week unplug from all technology, and provide numerous innovative and fun ways for students to build skills and confidence in activities other than technology. One important consideration by schools is to enhance their existing playgrounds to entice students to play at recess and after school. Diverting funds from computers toward building play grounds with age appropriate equipment would improve motor development, reduce obesity, and enhance social skills. The majority of playgrounds challenge only the younger grades, indicating need for inclusion for the 7-18 year olds e.g. skateboard and bike parks, zip lines, large climbing structures. Community initiatives to counteract the effects of technology could focus on beaches and parks, including addition of benches, picnic tables, covered fire pits, and adult exercise equipment to attract the teens and parents. Destination nature trails of varying lengths with tree houses, covered fire pits, and spiritual centres at trail end would attract the more adventurous families. Free admission to recreation centres for 0-18 years would also entice children and youth off technology. These suggestions were provided during “Tech Talks” offered to grade 4-9 children and youth in First Nations communities (sponsored by Vancouver Coastal Health) when asked the question “What would make you put down the device and go outside”?

Cris Rowan is a pediatric occupational therapist, author, and educator on the impact of technology on child development, behavior and learning, and can be reached at info@zonein.ca. Blog comments can be entered at www.movingtolearn.ca. Research references can be located on the Zone’in Fact Sheet found on www.zonein.ca.

One Response to “Digital Dementia – Guidelines for educators regarding technology use in school settings”

  1. Dr. Virginia Stead
    September 16, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    This article is a must-read for everyone who is responsible for children, namely parents, care-givers, teachers, all other school board employees, community children and youth leaders, librarians, civil servants, and politicians.

    Kudos to the author, Chris Rowan, for this professional and clearly-written report.

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