You may have seen a recent article in the New York Times about how more and more Silicon Valley tech gurus are restricting – and in some cases banning completely - their own children’s use of electronic devices in general, and phones in particular.
Bill Gates, for example, didn’t let his children have phones until they were teenagers and Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his own children near an iPad. Should we be worried? After all, these people know first-hand just how potentially damaging excessive screen time can be as they are the people whose day jobs it is to make phones and tech ever more appealing and ever more ubiquitous in every aspect of our daily lives. Should we be following their lead and limiting our children’s access to tech, curtailing the amount of time they spend using electronic devices? How can we – as educators and parents - simultaneously protect them from the dangers of excessive use of (and even psychological dependence on) tech while at the same time preparing them for a world where technology is omnipresent.
Part of the role of a preparatory school, along with preparing children for the immediate challenges they will face at senior school, is to prepare them to take their places as citizens in the wider world, a world which includes the digital realm. We wouldn’t be doing a very good job of teaching our children road safety in the long term if we simply banned them from going anywhere near a road until they were 18. Equally, though, we’d be horrified at the thought of giving our young children the keys to the family car and sending them out onto the roads unaccompanied – but this is effectively what we are doing when we give children unfettered and unguided use of a phone or tablet and access to the internet. There is a balance to be struck. We cannot ignore or ban technology completely if we are to prepare our children properly for the world they will inhabit. Children are, of course, adept at learning how to use technology for themselves in certain ways – they are amazingly quick to pick up how to use a new game or piece of kit, for example. Our role as educators is to help them also become safe, responsible, adaptable and creative digital citizens.
Safety underpins everything we do in education. School is above all a safe place, a place where children can learn, where they can make their own mistakes without fear of catastrophic consequences, and can learn from their setbacks as much as their successes. It is in these nurturing surroundings that educators can endeavour to show children how to access the internet safely, to manage their online presence sensibly, and to be aware of the potential dangers they may encounter, while maintaining a safe environment in which to learn.
Alongside the safe use of technology, we must teach children to use tech responsibly. Technology is a great tool for enabling collaborative creativity but if misused can also be a tool for bullying. Children must be taught how to be empathetic and build good relationships with others online.
The tech our children will be using as adults will be different from what they use now – in more ways than we can imagine. So we must give them the tools to be able to adapt to new technology – and to adapt that technology for their own purposes – with confidence and fluency. In many schools children are given access a variety of devices and apps: PCs, iPads and Chromebooks; they might even learn to code in PurpleMash, Scratch and Python or use VR headsets to explore the far-flung reaches of the globe, long-vanished ancient civilisations, and the organs of the human body.
Technology offers children all manner of opportunities to be creative. Across the STEAM subjects and beyond, children in this day and age are able to use tech to create stunning pieces of art, for example, to enhance their academic work. Advances are such that they are able to build and program robots, design and manufacture useful and innovative objects, and write code to solve hypothetical challenges and real-world problems.
Children can benefit from a balanced diet of technology using a range of devices and apps across the curriculum, and – to continue the food metaphor – learning about the rudiments of cooking (in the form of coding and robotics, for example) too. A healthy balanced diet can certainly include an occasional snack or a sweet treat at the end of a meal but we should nevertheless all be wary – as educators and parents - of allowing our children to gorge mindlessly on digital popcorn or spend their time grazing on the digital equivalent of Pringles and Haribos all day long. Those Silicon Valley gurus put a huge amount of time and energy into thinking about how our children’s use of tech can benefit them from their own perspective - in the form of increased market share, revenue and profitability for their companies. It behoves us all to think about what we want from technology for our children and how it can most benefit the children themselves, now and in the future.
A useful guide to appropriate use of tech at different ages can be found on this webpage www.nytimes.com/guides/smarterliving/family-technology
John Gracey is Head of Digital Learning at Lambrook School, Berkshire.
Lambrook is a leading Independent Prep day School for boys and girls aged between 3 and 13, offering weekly and flexi-boarding.