Whistleblower Frances Haugen recently exposed how Facebook’s own research links its Instagram service with body dissatisfaction and suicidal thoughts among teenagers. In a chilling TED Talk, design thinker Tristan Harris revealed how Google, his former employer, lures users into staying on-screen far longer than is good for them. Psychology professor Jean M. Twenge reported that teenage anxiety levels spiked after smartphones started to saturate the adolescent market in 2012. During the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of 5-year-olds received government-mandated, on-screen instruction that well exceeded the one-hour limit that was recommended pre-pandemic by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What are schools, school systems, governments, and foundations doing to stem this toxic tide of digital distraction, depression, and addiction? The answer, sadly, is very little—or nothing at all.
Yes, a Senate subcommittee recently grilled big-tech-company executives about the serious harm their products might do to children, but it’s unclear whether the protective legislation some legislators favor will ever see the light of day. Even more alarming perhaps, the people in charge of what our students should learn and how they should learn it are mainly making things worse.
Early in the pandemic, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a major partnership with the Gates Foundation to “reimagine education” digitally. Why, “with all the technology you have,” he disturbingly wondered aloud, was there any need for “all these physical classrooms” anymore?
When I joined global policy discussions to brainstorm post-pandemic educational scenarios, I witnessed ed-tech entrepreneurs, government leaders, and philanthropy executives wax lyrical about a transformative future of digital, blended, and hybrid learning. COVID-19 seemed to be the disruptive educational force they’d all been waiting for, the force that would upend conventional schooling everywhere.
If, like me, you are worried about the downside for students of such rapture, let me suggest the example of the notorious Luddites, a group of 19th-century English textile workers known for smashing the inventions that threatened their own jobs. Contrary to the popular understanding, the Luddites were actually very skilled with technologies. They weren’t opposed to all of them. They destroyed only the machines that they believed were being misused to undermine good labor practices.
My own research reveals countless examples of thoughtful uses of digital learning technologies in interdisciplinary projects and in formative assessments shared in real time. And, of course, during the pandemic, teachers have made enormous strides in developing their own and their kids’ digital competence so they can make use of such approaches. This …….