A Weird Language Trend: Children and Technology
Objections to electronic media-delivery devices are nothing new. Since at least 1977, with the publication of The Plug-In Drug, people have bemoaned the harmful effects of TV on children.
Then came video games and the ubiquitous home computer. I remember having a computer in my childhood home somewhere around 1986 when I was about 9 years old. My use of our Atari must have predated that.
For the decade or so that I was a nanny, roughly 1996-2008, it was popular to call TVs, video game devices, and computers “screens”. Parents discussed how and when they should limit “screen use”.
Some people still say “screens”, and I’m sure there other shorthands as well. But lately I’ve been seeing a frustrating and absurd shift in the language.
People are calling these things “technology”. Parents discuss the dangers of “technology”.
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
From Wikipedia: “Technology is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a pre-existing solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.”
You know what that means? It means that almost everything you use and interact with in your daily life is “technology”. Unless it’s a person, a stick, or a rock, it’s probably technology.
I recently saw an image with a list of “alternatives to technology”. It included things like reading a book, playing Frisbee, and playing board games. Guess what books, Frisbees, and board games are? They’re technology!
Now, I’m not devoted to 100% accurate language use at all times. Language shifts. People invent useful slang and shorthands. When someone says “technology”, I can be pretty certain they aren’t talking about a book. I know they are talking about something electronic.
But, sometimes when language shifts, ideas get distilled down to a single word or phrase that then gets repeated as a replacement for a more complex idea.The word or phrase becomes political and emotionally charged. Rather than use critical thinking about the idea, you learn to have a knee-jerk mental response.
On the topic of “technology” and children, this shift in language highlights the irrational nature of our fears. Discussion becomes less nuanced and more reactionary.
When discussing research about children and “technology”, there is a tendency to apply it too broadly. Some studies look at the effects of passive television watching on various childhood outcomes. Some studies look at the effects of violent video game playing on aggressive behavior.
Should we apply the results of this research to a child doing homework on a tablet? Should we apply the results of this research on a child composing music on a computer?
Lately, I’m seeing a lot of commentary that makes these sorts of errors. A recent article advocated the complete banning of handheld devices for children under 12. Other rebuttal articles pointed out that the research cited didn’t back up the claims of the article. In 10 Points Where the Research Behind Banning Handheld Devices for Children Is Flawed, Lisa Nielsen says:
The research focuses mainly on passive television consumption and video games that are either simple or for mature audiences. Much of it also is focused, not on pre-teens, but rather on teens and adults. The research shows a dearth of findings around the type of technology use in which the overwhelming majority of children engage.
Given all that, I wish fewer people would use the “technology” shorthand.
Even “screens” has issues. Using “screens” is often a derogatory throwaway phrase, focusing on only one aspect of the object in question. Imagine criticizing a child for their obsession with “pages” instead of discussing the content of the books or their motivations for reading.
I would like to see more nuanced conversations about electronic media-delivery devices. Are we talking about televisions? Handheld video game consoles? Laptops? Cell phones? Tablets? What kind of content are we talking about? What other factors about a family might influence how they use these items? What motivations and desires does the child in question bring to the interaction? What biases and assumptions about these devices to we bring to the conversation?
In short, the word “technology” doesn’t facilitate the discussion I’d like to have.