How did we end up with a device in every pocket, a screen in every hand? How did childhood change from a time of relative freedom to a period of electronic tethering? I believe parents, educators, and policymakers need to critically re-evaluate what screens are doing to our young, indeed, to reconsider what it means to be human. We should reflect and seek to answer the questions of how we came to build a global machine that eats childhood, how we might respond, and most importantly, what are practical ways in which this issue can be tackled by the individual, by families, at school, and in society at large?
Key points for reflection:
As a species, humans are defined by their technologies, each of which is open to critical examination, discussion, improvement, and sometimes, rejection. From the blade to the wheel, from symbolic representation to the internet, each technology changes how we live in the world. More significantly, these same technologies change how we understand and see the world. They change the very texture of our humanity.
Ultimately, our culture, and thus our collective survival, depend on the range of technologies that we opt to use and discard. Given all that technology has given us as a species, we are very quick to adopt new technologies, but not very good at seeing what they are doing to us.
Screens, as our shiniest and most exciting new technologies, are no exception. We have welcomed them into our homes, our workplaces, and our schools. We have given them to our children. They have changed the ways in which we think, work, live, shop, date, and talk. Despite the ways in which we feel them adjusting our own priorities and capabilities, we happily provide our children with screens, plugging them into a rapidly evolving and globe-spanning youth culture.
This comes at an odd moment in history, in which we have reduced the freedoms of our young, overworked them in schools, turned free play into organized activities, and generally revoked their opportunities to be children.
Sadly, the screens that have filled this void have been designed to be as compelling as possible, in order that we spend as much time on them as possible, consuming advertisements and creating sellable data. It turns out that we are not the customer, but rather that our attention is the product. In this economy, it is screens that harvest our attention for sale on the open market. We encounter children everywhere who seem to be addicted to their screens, and we struggled to know how to respond.
When recognized for what it is, our current situation comes as a shock to anyone who used computers and the internet in the 1980s and 1990s. These tools were sold to us with a wonderful narrative, in which they were a beacon of hope, an on-ramp to a new era of human consciousness, of flourishing, of knowledge, of connection, and of democracy. Drawn from Europe’s Enlightenment and its focus on progress, this narrative offered us hope in a challenging world. Sadly, in considering the current state of digital technology, we can come to see how threadbare this narrative is, and how desperately we need new stories to explain our fixation with screens.
What is interesting to note is that the development of screens was neither directed nor planned, so there is no conspiracy at work here. Rather, it is a fascinating story of millions of dedicated engineers and intellectuals working over centuries that has brought us to our current moment. With the best of intentions, with the passion and heroism that makes humans so wonderful, they have nonetheless brought us to the brink of disaster. Trump, Brexit, trolls, climate denial, and rising rates of youth suicide, all are fueled by these same technologies.
Despite the peril of our current moment, there are steps that we can take to help ourselves and to help our children. We can reframe our relationship with technology, we can wrest back control, and we can navigate a path forward from here. This journey begins with each of us as an individual, requiring us to change the way we think about and use technology. Once better informed, we can act as role models within our own families, guiding our children toward better screen usage from a young age. For those of us who work in schools, this can be extended to improvements in policy and practice, which can be used to complement and inform the understanding of families. Beyond these areas, corporations and governments have a role to play but will require pressure from consumers and voters in order to act.
Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping… (2018)
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. (2011)
Crawford, Mathew B. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. (2010).
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. (2008)
Newton, Toby. A Primer in Human Technologies. (2019)
Parker, Ross. Screens That Eat Children. (2022).
Ross Parker is the director of technology and assessment at International College Hong Kong, a small, innovative school in the North East of Hong Kong’s New Territories. Born in Hong Kong to Austrian and English parents during the final years of Britain’s empire, Ross has lived most of his life in a state of identity confusion.
As an educator, Ross is passionate about making learning a positive, anxiety-free process centered around personal transformation. Once an enthusiastic advocate for the role of technology in education, and in life, he has gradually become increasingly skeptical and now chooses his tools very carefully. In the search for better ways to use technology, Ross founded Gibbon, the open-source school platform, through which he has also developed the Free Learning pedagogy. Ross believes that education should focus on learning to learn through choice, rather than simply studying content to pass an exam. He is the author of Screens That Eat Children, a book about living, parenting, and teaching in an age of digital devices. You can purchase the book here.