This is what a group of nearly 20 very informed citizens (VICs !) discussed this March 26, over a Zoom conference call, as a Coronavirus alternative to an in person event, on the theme of Teens and Digital Media with experts Dr Ron Srigley, Dr Kate Tillezcek and Dr Natasha Sharma.
We started out watching this short video : “What the Internet is doing to our brain”, featuring Nicholas Carr’s work The Shallows.
Kate Tillezcek, a York University Canada Research Chair professor of Education, emphasized the results of her recent study asking over 180 young people about their use of technology, that showed they were not overall enthusiastic about how cell phones, apps and video games impacted their lives, despite the dominant discourse that these digital tools are a wonderful addition to society.
Dr Natasha Sharma, a Toronto psychologist and prominent speaker, even added she’s had teens in her consultations who wish they had grown up before the age of social media because of the pressure its put on them.
Dr Ron Srigley, a Laurentian university and Humber College Philosophy professor and writer, also noted many of the university students in his first experiment appreciated being cut off from their cell phone for a week. However, after his second, more recent test, he found fatalism from students in terms of their constantly distracted mode.
Acquiring a Critical View of Tech
I outlined the discrepancy between those “ in the know” about technology, like teens, millenials and professionals in the digital space, and school, university administrators and many parents, who still have an old-fashioned, 90’s vision of Tech as miraculous. Ron Srigley and others outlined the evolution from the open source movement and Wikipedia to Facebook and constant ad targeting. He pointed to Jaron Lanier’s “ You are not a Gadget” book in predicting the more negative aspects of digital media’s evolution.
Alon, a digital marketing professional and parent added that not only did kids need help using personal tech responsibly, but their parents did too. How could schools or others, like the media, he asked, target them with the sort of knowledge they need to play an informed role as caregivers?
Dr Sharma indicated she often saw parents had a negative image of social media but were not very active in enforcing limitations on its use, most probably because they lacked time and awareness on how to proceed.
Krista, a participant who is a school principal indicated she’d had an event for parents addressing healthy use of digital media (where I spoke), but that the parents who came were among the more educated and tech savvy. She also indicated with her own children, she was weary of being a helicopter parent, remembering the freedom she had growing up.
I offered the suggestion that the difference with cell phones and video games is they were extremely potent tools, unlike the games GenXers accessed growing up. Digital media were not designed for kids or with kids protection in mind — even though they were astutely marketed at kids. So they gave kids access to the same world of possibilities adults have — without any safegards.
Not only that, but unlike the majority of goods and services, they are free to use, with a business model based on sending advertising to its “users”. They were therefore designed with addiction in mind, as a way to sustain a profitable ad-based revenue model.
Television has the same model, but it was regulated as it was emerging - to protect children from harmful content for example — because legislators were also watching it. With social media and video games, legislators were out of the picture because they were not active users of these tools. Talk about fomenting a revolution right under the master’s nose, California!
My impression is that, as with cigarettes or driving, there will have to be public messaging from governements to warn about the dangerous nature of cell phones and video games so parents feel authorized to manage their kids’ digital consumption.
Adapting School & University Teaching to the Digital Context
The question remained for Alon and myself, two digital marketers by trade, as to how schools could adapt to their kids’ new mindset. How could they adapt to kids, teens and young adults who were subjected to highly dynamic, interactive ( think “swipe/thumps up/share”), “blinking information” in a traditional classroom setting? Many had enterered the profession out of the love of human contact. Their rivals are now machines they don’t particularly appreciate.
The answer certainly is not iPads or Chrome books in kids’ hands, with a muted or disgruntled teacher. It may be more interactive teaching methods themselves, aided or not by Tech.
Dr Ron Srigley, who wrote an extensive, mind-opening letter to well-meaning parents on the degradation of humanistic learning in lower-tier North American universities, lamented feeling like he was the distraction in his students’ life, as a professor.
Allie, a third year U. of Toronto student and climate activist, intervened to mention an interesting reaction one of her Political Science professors had had to the invasion of machines. Her professor had asked students to put away their laptops during class, unless they had an accessibility issue. In which case, they had to sit at the back of the class so their classmates would not be distracted by their screens. Allie indicated the teacher’s ratings did not suffer from this seemingly tough call, as many students realized it was helping them focus.
Kate Tillezcek outlined she was lucky enough in her capacity as a Professor of Education to be debating how to reinvent teaching with her students, who felt the “distraction syndrome” on their own behaviours. She called upon youth like Allie to wake up administrators wanting to please students to take a stance on “distraction tech” in the classroom as a way to really make their students happier.
Allie mentioned it also takes adding graded Q & A’s in the classroom, through university digital voting tools (vs their own cell phones), to keep students engaged in the lecture — or should I say “ discussion”?- and coming to class.
Sponsoring a Humane Evolution of Tech
Salvatore D’Agostino, a tech entrepreneur building security and identification technology based on Open Consent and “consent by design” indicated he was part of those pushing for humane, consent-based tech solutions in Canada and the US. For him, technology should be in the service of people . We should not have people be in the service of technology.
As part of efforts to inform parents, educators, doctors, psychologists and legislators on the negative effects of unmitigated social media and video games, I indicated Tech for Good Canada was offering, for the first time in Canada to watch the award-winning Screenagers documentary online, in English, with French subtitles. This 2016 documentary directed by Dr Delaney Ruston looks into the impact on young brains of the 6-plus hours of screen time they experience. Anyone can see Screenagers free of charge, at any time, from the confort of their home for the first time, in English with French subtitles, until April 2nd online here.
With kids, teens and young adults at home in these #pandemic times, watching the one hour Screenagers movie with the adults caring for them can really help spark a discussion about how unhealthy use of social media & video games can increase anxiety, depression and poor body image, and inability to focus.
One of the participants, a U. of Toronto Munk School Professor herself, asked whether digital media, in particular the Internet and online platforms should not be treated like a utility. Just as electricity, we can see it in these Coronavirus Pandemic times, it has become essential to our lives. This thinking was shared by many in the discussion, and is advocated for regularly.
In any case, we agreed there was an imbalance of power today between the Big Tech companies, which had been allowed to bloom without hindrance, and states and individuals. After their initial, open-minded days, Tech entrepreneurs had abused the excessive power they’d been handed by governements eager to leverage the wonders of information technology.
Entities in Canada like CIGI, founded by another Tech insider, ex Blackberry CEO Balsillie, have been advocating for better governance of these new public utilities, as in this article: Digital Platforms require a governance framework.
There were many other great points made during our nearly two hour discussion, I cannot add here. As Tim, my co-host, a teacher by trade and publisher of Green Teacher magazine said, this March 26 eSalon is a spark in the movement to address our other emerging crisis: the Digital Crisis!
Subscribe to Tech for Good Canada news here or follow us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to join the movement and attend the April Salon. We also have Signal groups, one in French, one in English. Contact me to join.