Disconnecting to reconnect

By 17/10/2017 No Comments
by John Ingrassia
Headmaster, Windlesham School, Brighton

As a former ICT teacher and co-ordinator, I am an unlikely candidate for advocating that children should reduce the amount of computing time they enjoy. But that is exactly what I suggest. Indeed, I would not be the first person with a mild interest in computers to make this argument. The late Steve Jobs forbade his children completely from using the very same iPad his company was selling. Similarly, the co-founder of Twitter also limited his children’s access to screens.

My thoughts on this topic were crystallized several years ago after reading a book by Susan Maushart, ‘The Winter of Our Disconnect’. Fortunately for my sons, they were near the exit of their education at the time so could not ‘benefit’ from the full impact the book had on me. However, the thumping message of Susan’s book became permanently impressed on my conscience and I have since preached sanctimoniously to parents, friends and colleagues alike about the revelations of Susan’s experiment.

The ‘experiment’, as Susan refers to it, is born of a mum’s growing awareness that, although her three teenage children co-exist in her home, for the large part they are only really active in their individual cyber worlds. Family engagement, conversation, group enjoyment and interaction have all become an endangered species. Susan decides to take control and disconnect her family from all links to the World Wide Web. For the subsequent six months, Susan diarizes her observations and draws our attention to some fascinating studies on related issues. But Susan’s observations only really made the impact they did because, as often happens with observations that make an impact, they echo what we already know; in this case, that ‘connecting’ people through the phenomenon of high res screens is actually disconnecting them from face-to-face interaction and all the associated benefits.

Those of us who have been teaching longer than 15 years or so may have noted a trend in recent years towards a slightly different type of pupil progressing through our schools. Pupils now (and I accept that I am casting my net widely) tend to be less able to fill free time without devices, to compromise on their choice of games, to negotiate the rules for playing, to tolerate losing or unfavourable game decisions, to persevere through challenging problems and to develop independent ideas. Interestingly, there exists an uncanny coincidence between my initial timing of these observations and the invention of the iPad in 2010. I hasten to add that these observations are not exclusively mine. I have heard many colleagues and parents comment on the same trend for quite some time.

While most of us reading this article are either digital immigrants (born before the creation of the www in 1989) or the first generation of digital natives (born after 1989), pupils now passing through our primary schools are the second generation of natives and are therefore experiencing their formative years in a far more mature and advanced internet environment, where the gravitational pull of devices is much stronger than ever before.

The reasons for this are varied. For a start, Moore’s Law, which in 1969 predicted that computing power would double every eighteen months, has continued to hold true and even increase its pace of computing progress, resulting in high calibre computers and devices becoming the standard even for emerging users. Next, consider this: in the last five years alone, we have recorded more information on the Internet than in the entire history of mankind, thus making the surf-able landscape virtually endless. And add to that the plethora of beautifully crafted apps, the exponentially expanding YouTube universe, the movie-like qualities of online gaming, with vastly improved visual appeal and targeted marketing campaigns, not to mention the ease with which all these apps, games and social media are now instantly accessible wirelessly from any location on aesthetically adorable devices, and you start to wonder, “Four Gee, how do children ever disconnect?”

Back at Susan’s ranch, there are some surprising discoveries. Within weeks of starting the experiment, her house becomes the local haunt for nearby teenage friends who marvel at the wonders of Monopoly and other board games. Her son, a lost soul with no clear calling (of Duty, of course), digs deep into his cupboard to find a long-abandoned saxophone, which, by the end of the experiment, becomes the focus of his future ambitions. Her daughter, normally a habitual multiple social media flipper, has no option but to focus on a single homework task at a time, resulting in greatly improved grades at school. In the absence of a smartphone, previously used to access advice and opinion from the world at large, she begins to also display greater self-reliance.

Similar findings to those outlined by Maushart have been echoed by Psychologist Jean Twenge writing in The Times this year. In fact, Twenge makes her point with more disturbing statistics; for example, in the past year, Childline received more than 4000 calls from children as young as six suffering loneliness. She cites an experiment which required certain Facebook users to give up their use for a week. Those who did, ended the week ‘happier, less lonely and less depressed’ than those who didn’t. The link between increased screen time and the decay in mental health has been repeatedly confirmed in numerous other studies.

Blaming children for the way they play in this virtual playground is clearly pointless, and wrong. We created this environment, yet statistics and observations would suggest we offer little in the way of rules or guidance. Clearly, as parents and educators, we have some tough decisions to make. But then that’s our job. What is certain is that although our generation continues its age-old quest to secure a better life for our children, by giving them more screens, more time and less regulation on their devices, we risk not doing enough to make them happier, better people.

Windlesham School runs pupil-led tours of the school in action every day! Please contact 01273 553645 to arrange a visit.