When we put powerful devices in the hands of adolescents and teenagers, they will make mistakes. There is no doubt about it. Recently, I've been pressed by fellow educators and parents, both in person and via digital communications, as to whether it is truly worthwhile to give children – children with brains that are not fully developed – these powerful tools when we know with confidence that they will make mistakes while using them. They will play games when they should be doing homework. They will get sucked into text messages during class time when they should be taking notes.
For many adults, this is new territory. We did not grow up with these powerful devices and an endless internet at our fingertips. How can we possibly set limits to the limitless world that our children now live in?
Over the past few years, some research has emerged that can help us explain to our children why they (and we) are so drawn to our screens and to technology. One reason is dopamine. It is a chemical that is released in our brains that creates good feelings. When we eat, exercise, and engage in stimulating social activities dopamine helps us feel those healthy good feelings. It turns out, dopamine is also released with certain screen-based activities like leveling up in a game, talking about ourselves on social media, getting likes on our posts, and multitasking between apps and tabs. Generally, this is still a good thing. But too much of a good thing can desensitize us to the effects of dopamine and we are then driven to trigger it's release more often. In other words, food, exercise, or screens can become addictive.
On the other hand, our children are doing amazing things thanks to technology and screens. They are coding to design apps and teaching their friends how to do the same. They are designing and printing 3D prosthetics. They are even starting social movements that are really creating positive change.
The amazing things our students – our children – are doing with these devices are the precise reasons we must put these powerful devices in their hands. The research on dopamine is also an important reason to teach them how to manage their technology use in a healthy way while they are still under our purview. A parent from my school recently shared this quote with me, and gave me permission to share it with you:
Together with my colleagues and fellow digital learning specialists, Julie Cremin and Elizabeth Solomon, I have recently developed this tip sheet for parents with links to helpful resources and questions that can serve as conversation starters. It is a great resource to share with both parents and teachers as they work toward developing strategies for working with the adolescents and teens in their lives.
Let's be real: We are using technology and screens as an organic and inherent means of doing business, communicating, and creating the products we need to do our work as adult professionals. It makes sense for our children to do academics, communicate, and create using these same technologies and screens as they prepare to be adults in the world that exists. What's more, our children are already engaging with technology outside of school when they use their smartphones to access social media, stream videos and movies on their TVs, and play video games on all devices. They are already growing and developing in a tech-rich world. Let's make that development positive and structured in our schools to help them navigate that world.