Children and technology. A few dos and don’ts

Enrique Dans. Professor. IE Business School

27 October 2015

Evolving technology forms an integral part of our children’s natural environment, and, therefore, their upbringing should be adapted accordingly. Here are ten simple tips on how to do just that. 

To what extent should children’s education evolve in line with their environment? Isn’t that blatantly obvious? All we have to do is take a few points from the right Wikipedia page to see how real education is an open learning process that goes beyond preconceived ideas and tends to favor developing conscience, powers of reasoning and intelligence, and, along with these qualities, deliver the optimum performance of each educated person to enable them to live in the best way possible (which is generally understood to be a cultured existence in society).  Why do we educate our children? Simply so that they will be capable of securing the best possible lives for themselves within a specific context. In that case, should the way children are educated evolve in lockstep with a changing context? Anyone who does not think so, and thinks that it’s better to keep your kids in a bubble, isolated from that social context, has a problem. What’s more, it’s a problem that they are prepared to foist on their children.

What factors should we therefore take into consideration when it comes to educating our kids with relation to technological development? With the aim of giving some structure to my ideas for a talk in Galicia’s City of Culture event, I tried to organize a list of do’s and don’ts.

The integration of technologies into day-to-day life is unstoppable, and responds to the constant acceleration of progress and technological advancement, and not to any kind of trend or passing fad. Saying that you are some kind of conscientious objector to technology is a banal, absurd and nonsensical thing to do, and means that you will miss out on enjoying this particular aspect of progress. As a personal option you are arguably entitled to do it, and it could possibly be described as a whim. As an option that applies to your children’s education, it is utterly irresponsible. Bringing up your children in a technology-free bubble is just as irresponsible as depriving them of a school education. 

There is no “right age” for introducing your kids to technology. It could be seen as being something that is completely natural, a simply progressive interaction with part of the child’s environment. When should a child be given a smartphone? As soon as they are capable of not putting it in their mouths. Any way of familiarizing the child with interfaces of technological devices in their environment is a positive move.

The idea that children are better equipped to use technology because they were born in a certain year or they belong to a specific generation is completely absurd. Digital natives do not exist. The only thing that exists is a person’s capacity to better incorporate technological processes if (and only if) there has been a natural immersion in said processes. Children do not handle technology better than their parents, or know more about it, unless they are more naturally exposed to them while their parents voluntarily exclude themselves. The common sense needed to handle an environment where technology is prevalent comes with experience and practice, and that is why parents are much better equipped to develop these skills and transmit them.  The idea that children are somehow digital natives and that parents supposedly know less must be kept out of children’s education, given that it is completely irresponsible and could result in the children becoming digital orphans.

The children, unless their use of technology is supervised, will simply use it for a very small range of things, generally to do with social interaction, without gaining any deeper understanding. Curiosity, interest, reasoning, deduction, conscience, a sense of what’s right and wrong, and, finally, intelligence, should all be stimulated. The idea of children being some sort of “noble savages” who can learn everything for themselves is completely ridiculous and irresponsible. Parents have to play a role in this educational task of stimulation, and not eschew their responsibility for any reason whatsoever. Computers or smartphones are not baby-sitters or some kind of off switch for children. Parents have to take an interest in what their kids are doing on networks, just as they should be interested in what they do at school, at friends’ houses, or in the street, and they should lay down the right rules of behavior for each different environment.

Parental filters are a bad idea. They create a bubble that is supposedly free from the danger that exists on the web. This has two main effects: first it makes parents relax because they think they have done their bit by installing the filter, and they tend to think they don’t have to carry out any further supervision. Second, it produces kids who are not adequately prepared, which becomes obvious the moment they have the opportunity to access a screen without said parental filer. They will suddenly find a series of content that they are not prepared to see, which attract their attention, and which now hold the lure of being new or even of being forbidden fruit. No, obviously not all internet content are all right for children of any age, and neither looking for such content nor relinquishing control over it makes any sense. Said control, however, should not be left to a technological device, but should rather be as a result of conscious supervision that is both attentive and prepared to give explanations.  If you really think that it’s enough to explain and feed your children with the belief that they were brought into this world by a stork, then you definitely have a problem. 

The most important thing about technology is not that it is used, but rather being able to understand what lies behind it. Using a computer or an app is simple and the barriers to entry for learning about them have been decreasing for a long time now. Learning how a computer works is not quite so simple. It is exactly the same as learning physics – understanding that an object falls when we let go of it is easy to understand, but understanding why it falls is a different matter. Technology and computer sciences are now on a level with physics, biology and mathematics. We don’t teach physics to a child in order to make him into an expert in physics, but so that he can understand that we live in a world governed by the rules of physics. We should teach computer sciences to children because they are set to live in a world full of programmable objects. Technology cannot be an optional subject, an extra-curricular subject that never becomes mainstream. Trying to choose, as far as it is possible, schools where developing these skills is considered important, is a good measure of responsibility. Education has changed drastically, memorization of text books has given way to methodologies based on qualifying information, active understanding, contrasting sources, projects and interaction with one’s environment. If your children’s school is not run along those lines, it is very possible that they’re in the wrong place.

Introducing games that foster learning how technology works is essential to ensure that children develop related skills, just like they do when they play with Meccano, building blocks or jigsaw puzzles. Playing with your children at lighting up LEDs, making a robot, or programming one can strengthen family ties and help greatly to build technological skills. Thinking that this type of thing or that this essential part of your child’s education should only be done at school is as ridiculous as it is irresponsible.

Control is vital. Just as kids should not be playing all day long every day, they should not be permitted to never disconnect, or give up other forms of interaction to spend all their time on their smartphone or PC. The image of a child using their smartphone at the dinner table is horrendous, as is the idea that you can’t control or restrict their use because it might cause kids some kind of trauma (and obviously parents have to lead by example and exercise responsibility in this respect).  Technology generates instant powerful and rewarding stimuli, and requires a certain level of control – just like practically any other kind of activity. There are very good games for developing numerous skills, but this does not meant that kids should spend hours playing them non-stop. Common sense is essential here.

Everything changes. The work involved in parents being vigilant and monitoring use of technology should be in line with society’s uses and customs in such a way that children are gradually exposed to emerging developments as they are gradually adopted by society. No, buying a game should not make you think that you have done your bit. Education is a long process, with major requirements in terms of attention, that cannot all be subcontracted, and which should be carried out with a certain level of responsibility. Nothing is without danger, from leaving the house to using a ball point pen, but being paranoid and having the idea that we should keep our children away from all possible danger is complete overkill.  If you believe everyone who says that the web is dangerous, you’ll end up systematically distancing your children from it, and that is a big mistake.  No, Wikipedia is not bundle of lies - there isn’t a hacker hanging off every telegraph pole, and the web is not turning us into idiots, nor is it making our brains waste away. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be ok. 

Someone who voluntarily excludes themselves from technological advancements will be unable to give their children an education that will prepare them for a good future in a society that is increasingly determined by technological development. Your children’s education starts with your own education, the development of skills that are key for their future development begin with your own development. No, you can’t say “my children know more than I do” no matter how proud it makes you to see that they know they can do or play this that or the other.  Their brain is more flexible than yours and they can learn certain skills faster and in a more natural way, but in terms of common sense and experience you should have an advantage over them – at least you are supposed to have, unless you have expressly renounced that privilege. Some skills, such as managing information, accessing and filtering sources, verification, searching, etc. are FUNDAMENTAL for your children’s future. If you are one of those people who believe that something “is true because you saw it on the internet” or that you accept the first result that Google came up with, you are not equipped to convey basic values to your children that are important for their future development. Get your act together. Learn. 

And that is what I am going to try to transmit to you today, namely the need to channel, with the right amount of responsibility, the education of children in a world where they are increasingly surrounded by technology. The essential reform of education in order to adapt it to the way we live now is only going to happen if we achieve broad and unequivocal consensus among families, teachers and legislators. If families are not extraordinarily sure, if it is not clear that there is enormous social demand, if teachers cannot see why they should overcome an isomorphism and the inertia of using methodologies that have been on the go for centuries, or if we continue to maintain governments in power who are incapable of using a computer or understanding the importance of technology, then our country, Spain, will have a problem. Technology is not an “accident” or a “fad”, it is here to stay and forms part of the environment just as so many other things do. Preparing our children for that environment is simply a question of responsibility.

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