Thursday, December 5, 2013

More reasons to like screens

Some people are convinced that the Internet and social media are making us dumber. I am weary of this argument. It seems obvious to me that my children know more about the world than I did at their ages, and that technology has much to do with this.

One of the cool things about being 41 years old is that I remember when remote-controlled televisions came on the market. Serendipitously, my family's black-and-white set broke down around the same time the local Radio Shack got its first shipment of remote-controlled televisions. So our first color TV came with a two-inch chunk of a remote that was the fascination of the neighborhood. This is especially remarkable given the fact that my dad was practically a Luddite, with a special fondness for rotary-dial telephones.

Anyway, as remotes caught on, parents worried that children would become lazy (or lazier) because they no longer had to get up off the couch to change the channel. I actually remember teachers and other adults voicing this concern. As I don't know a single person who chooses to change the channel manually, I think it's safe to say that we got over our fear of remotes.

Worrying about the moral effects of technology is not a new thing, and even pre-dates remote-controlled television. Apparently Socrates fretted that the high-tech act of writing would have fatal consequences for traditional Greek dialectic. This information comes to us via a new book, Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson. A book review in The New York Times commends Thompson for
avoid[ing] both the hype and the hand-wringing so common among digital age pontificators . . . He comes across as a sensible utopian, tending toward the belief that our digital devices and social networks are, on balance, enhancing our lives and improving the world in the same mixed-blessing sort of way that writing, paper, the printing press and the telephone did.
"Sensible utopian" also aptly describes teacher Andrew Simmons, who recently took to The Atlantic to consider (and mostly praise) the effects of social media on high school boys' writing. His argument is anecdotal but worth considering, especially when paired with Thompson's claim that social media and blogs have meant an increase in writing for most Americans.

It may seem like I'm all about "screen time" these days. After all, my last post was something of a tribute to the learning possibilities represented by the television-DVD player combination. Even I am surprised by my enthusiasm for screens, as I began life as a homeschooling parent with the grim determination to keep electronics in the background as much as possible. (I also began homeschooling with a firm belief in the inferiority of practically every activity to reading books. I'd like to blame this on time spent in college English departments, but it may well have been my own problem.)

The writings of Sandra Dodd and other unschoolers helped me to reconsider my suspicion of digital media, to rethink the very notion of "screen time," and to stop arbitrarily limiting the time my children spent using the television, DVD player, computer, and other devices. It was only a matter of time until I was noting the very real ways in which my children were using screens to learn.