By Janice C. Kaplan
For every parent who decries a child’s obsession with video games, there is another who is thankful that learning can be more robust and interesting. In this three-part series, we examine how adolescents use technology and what parents can do to keep their children safe and healthy.
Part II: “That’s their normal.”
We hear negative stories about technology on a regular basis — from young people dying after marathon gaming sessions to teenagers being bullied after naked photos on their phones go viral — but there also are positive stories, where technology has enriched and improved the lives of children, from their academics to their social lives and security.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of technology lies in education. Advances with computers, the Internet, e-readers and other tools provide exciting supplements and alternatives to traditional learning methods.
Tools such as SMART Boards have been in use in Alachua County schools for several years. A SMART Board is an interactive, touch-sensitive whiteboard used in classrooms to display, among other things, data, images, websites and video clips.
“It’s easier to present a large amount of information when covering broader topics,” says Norton Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Kristina Ford. “When the kids ask me a question and I don’t have the answer, I’ll look it up and we’ll talk about how to research something online and go through it step by step.”
SMART Boards also provide a revolutionary way to see the world; it’s called the virtual field trip. Virtual field trips take students places they couldn’t otherwise visit for any number of reasons. These trips can take the form of pre-recorded videos, relevant web pages or 360-degree slideshows. Others use videoconferencing software with a live guide leading and interacting with students in the classroom. Organizations such as PBS and the Smithsonian Institution offer virtual field trips to museums, islands and historic locations.
Technology also plays a crucial role in the education of children with special needs, such as 13-year-old Anthony Becker. In addition to suffering from ADHD, Anthony has dyslexia, which impairs his ability to spell and sound-out words. He also must overcome dysgraphia, a condition that makes writing assignments difficult at best.
“He has a hard time getting words from his head on to a piece of paper,” says his mother, Nicole Becker. “You and I would normally be able to write like we talk; he has a hard time just processing that.”
The Beckers use several tools to help Anthony, a Cambridge student entering Gainesville High School this fall, keep up with his vigorous school requirements. In middle school, he used an Alphasmart word processing machine to type classroom assignments that would otherwise need to be handwritten.
He also uses a Kindle e-reader for books, which helps him combat his ADHD in several ways. He sets the font to a larger size so less of each page appears on the screen, slowing his reading so he can better focus on the content. The device’s dictionary function also allows him to look up the meaning of a word within the context of the story, a benefit for any student. And according to Becker, Anthony pays better attention to a screen than he would a sheet of paper.
Technology has also revolutionized research and collaboration. In addition to the usual search engines, students can take advantage of niche sites such as Khan Academy. Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) offers videos, demonstrations and statistics to enhance learning and to assist students with projects. Educational communities such as Edmodo allow teachers to set up online groups for students and parents to gather and share information, work on projects together and ask questions on a main page that resembles a Facebook profile.
Ford has established an Edmodo community for her combination fourth/fifth-grade students and their parents. It gives her the ability to see where her students stand academically, especially when they ask one another for help. But it also provides a secure social and educational experience.
“It creates a safe space to let the kids become involved,” Ford says. “The setup makes the kids feel like they’re on Facebook, but an email is sent to me about every exchange that happens on Edmodo. I’m involved in all of it. Emails can also be sent to parents so they know every time someone talks to their kids. And it’s closed; the only way you can get on is through a log on and specific password.”
Safety when using technology is the number a major of Steve Beebe, MD, a Gainesville-based pediatrician. As both a physician and a parent, he is especially wary of the Internet, and advises that all parents be aware of their children’s activities online.
“I suggest that computers for young children be kept in a public place,” advises Dr. Beebe. “Once they are in high school, we can’t monitor everything that they’re doing, but we need to be aware of their behaviors online. We need to teach our kids about the ramifications of posting on sites like Facebook. There are privacy issues that must be considered. Plus, activity online today may have serious implications for the future, such as admission to college or even employment.”
Cell phones, like computers, also are double-edged swords. More than three-fourths of children between the ages of 12 and 17 own cell phones. And while it’s easy to criticize a teenager for burying his face in a keypad, cell phones offer a convenient and organized way for adolescents to stay connected with their peers.
They also provide a sense of security for parents, making it easier for children to keep in contact. Additionally, many phones are equipped with GPS locators, so parents can track their children’s whereabouts.
Becker’s two older children have cell phones and, while Anthony does not use his too much, her 10-year-old daughter, Alex, is another story. A dance student who takes five classes a week, Alex’s busy schedule pulls her mom in different directions every day. Becker needed help balancing her daughter’s many activities with the needs of her other children, including 7-year-old Joshua.
“Alex is in dance productions with rehearsals where you just drop them off and you don’t know when they’re going to be done,” she says. “So I either have to wait around with her, or she uses her phone to call me when she’s done. It’s been a godsend this year!”
Technology also has made it easier to occupy her other children during these hectic times. Between games like Angry Birds and streaming online movies or TV shows, Becker and many other parents use iPads, laptops and portable game consoles to entertain children in a pinch. Dr. Beebe said that while overuse of technology as a pacifier should be avoided, he sees the value in capturing a child’s attention for a short time in a quiet waiting room, or while dinner is cooking.
Even video games, often vilified for their immersive qualities, can offer positive benefits for adolescents. Studies cite a correlation between video game play and improved hand-eye coordination. Physically interactive systems such as the Wii and Xbox Kinect offer games based on sports, dance and fitness activities that require participants to run in place, jump or otherwise move vigorously. It’s not quite the same as playing tag outside, but these games do satisfy a child’s desire for video screens while getting them out of their chairs.
The combination of technologies available to children has created what Dr. Beebe calls a new generation of multi-taskers. He said it’s not uncommon for his high school patients to simultaneously work on assignments, view online information sources, watch TV and listen to music. However, whether or not that translates into more productivity in the work place remains to be seen.
“Our kids are going to grow up very differently than we did,” Dr. Beebe says. “Maybe it makes them better at multi-tasking, but I’m not really sure we know yet how that’s going to play out in the long-run, but they will be very comfortable using technology.”
“There are a lot of positives to technology. But, like anything, moderation is key,” says Dr. Beebe. “I think most of my patients’ parents understand that things in moderation are fine, but even good things can become negative when taken to extremes.”