A hot issue today in education is the usefulness of computers in the classroom. Some people - President Obama among them - argue that increasing resources should be spent to bring more computers and more internet access into schools and integrate them into education. The controversy, whether at the federal level or the local school board level, is usually over whether this is worth the expense. But the reality is that what our kids need most of all from schools - and libraries - is a respite from technology and time to give sustained, uninterrupted attention to learning the academic basics that they can then apply to any technological platform - just like the people who created those platforms in the first place. What we should be demanding from our schools is a computer- and internet-free zone.
The NY Times reports on a study showing that kids age 8-18 spend an average of 7 1/2 hours a day using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device. "And because so many of them are multitasking - say, surfing the Internet while listening to music - they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours."
The study then turned to the possible impact of all that time consuming electronic media:
Contrary to popular wisdom, the heaviest media users reported spending a similar amount of time exercising as the light media users. Nonetheless, other studies have established a link between screen time and obesity.
While most of the young people in the study got good grades, 47 percent of the heaviest media users - those who consumed at least 16 hours a day - had mostly C's or lower, compared with 23 percent of those who typically consumed media three hours a day or less. The heaviest media users were also more likely than the lightest users to report that they were bored or sad, or that they got into trouble, did not get along well with their parents and were not happy at school.
The study could not say whether the media use causes problems, or, rather, whether troubled youths turn to heavy media use.
Certainly the latter is a significant possibility - that computers and TV are more readily adopted by preteens and teens who aren't playing sports or socializing or wooing the opposite sex. But the broader point remains: schools should not be gateways to the internet, an adult medium if ever there was one. They should be a place to ensure that kids learn different skills than the ones they get from playing video games. If kids need to learn to work with computers as a trade, they can do that no sooner than junior/senior year of high school, the same way they would take a shop class. But otherwise, they are mostly being given a crutch that either short-circuits their learning process or the teacher's teaching process - and reinforces as well the mental habits of overuse of technology.
I'm not one to argue that TV or computers are all bad for kids, although parents have to exercise some responsibility for placing outer limits on time spent on those media and supervise the content kids are exposed to. But school is supposed to ensure that kids get grounded in the basics. Unplugging them for the duration of the school day is the best way to ensure that happens.