In Screen Time is Stolen Time, a March 8, 2023 article published in City Journal, Mr. Anthony Mir reviewed a book authored by Mr. Michel Desmurget titled Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children. The review includes several thought-provoking passages, but one passage in particular about the ubiquity of technology in schools caught my attention because I had recently read a Microsoft blog post which inadvertently implicated many of the issues highlighted by Messrs. Mir and Desmurget.
First, Mr. Mir described Mr. Desmurget’s assessment of how school districts and big tech companies sell their increasing students’ screen time:
According to Desmurget, all-permeating screen usage supports the myth of “digital natives”—a new generation of kids so digitally proficient that education must accommodate their excellent digital skills and persistent digital needs. The media and tech companies maintain this myth, he argues, and educators accept it as a public demand for even more screens in schools. Instead of adapting digital technologies to the needs of education, they adapt education to the needs of digital technologies.Anthony Mir
Parents abdicate parental responsibilities to screens, as highlighted in a humorous post about a child in a stroller outdoors watching videos on his phone. Instead of questioning whether it is wise to stick kids who are allegedly not old enough to walk without a stroller in front of phones while they are outdoors, many parents and analysts assume that toddlers on phones is inevitable, and they instead promote strange ideas such as the need to teach a five year old about online security and privacy. Perhaps those parents who use their children for social media clout take it for granted that their toddlers should be on phones all day.
I am not too familiar with the term “digital native,” but to the extent it describes “a new generation of kids so digitally proficient that education must accommodate their excellent digital skills…” the term is patently absurd. Mr. Mir took the position that Mr. Desmurget correctly rejected the term wholesale, but he did so for the wrong reasons. According to Mr. Mir, the issue is that heavy exposure to digital technology modifies and harms children’s brains, but there is no independent “digitally modified generation” phenomenon independent of this basic cause and effect. I will append an additional point that is not addressed in Mr. Mir’s short piece. Many, if not most, of these supposed digital natives have little exposure to any digital technology outside of the confines of their phone operating systems, swiping on TikTok and Instagram, and playing video games online. The term seems to suggest that children who spend their lives on their phones must have some level of digital aptitude. To be sure, there are some children who are genuinely interested in technology and legitimately digitally inclined (many of whom far surpass me), just as there were before most of them had iPhones. But to suggest that social media addiction or playing online games on Steam has caused children to acquire a digital citizenship that must be recognized and accommodated in schools is little more than an ex post de facto justification for increasing the amount of time spent on incorporating technology into the classroom. I had a few smart classmates in high school (15-17 years ago) who developed addictions to massively online multiplayer games, addictions that had a negative effect on their school attendance and performance. I do not recall anyone suggesting that because we now had digital natives amongst us, every classroom must have a computer.
School administrators and school districts now unquestioningly take it for granted that tablets and laptops are necessary for learning things such as how to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic. Never mind that this was not the case 15 years ago. Certainly do not look at current trends in grade-level competency in reading and math in major school districts. The education industry has had a weakness for non-academic fads for several decades. Turning over classrooms to Google, Apple, and Microsoft is a new offshoot of the preexisting problem.
I say turning over classrooms because that description ties into Mr. Desmurget’s assessment, reported by Mr. Mir, that schools “adapt education to the needs of digital technologies.” School districts are investing heavily in laptops, tablets, and strange apps. These tools are often incompatible with traditional methods of education. Thus, having heavily invested in the technology, the easy solution is to bend the classroom to accommodate the technology.
I return to Mr. Mir’s description of Mr. Desmurget’s argument:
The result is a self-reinforcing loop. Digital technologies rapidly proliferate to satisfy the alleged needs of digital natives, and digital natives grow even more digital as they are increasingly immersed in screens.Anthony Mir
Who benefits from this self-reinforcing loop? There is little evidence that children are learning to read and do math better than before (I dare say we are seeing quite a bit of evidence to the contrary). There is little evidence that an emphasis on technology in the classroom is producing more well-adjusted students. I imagine that kids can learn to use exploitative social media like the Chinese Communist Party’s TikTok just as well without spending class-time on a tablet. The beneficiaries of the loop are politicians who want to be seen as doing something, school administrators who want to be judged by any metric other than whether the students under their jurisdiction are learning what they need to learn, and big tech companies who want to sell products and acclimate kids to their particular software suites. Mr. Mir added another timely diagnosis:
The alignment of public and private interests has made bureaucrats digital sales managers. The education system has become one of the biggest distribution networks of everything digital. The Covid-19 pandemic encouraged additional budgeting for distance learning and digital technologies in schools. The combination of these factors suppresses any objective evaluation of the harms and risks that digital pollution poses for childhood.Anthony Mir
Here, Mr. Mir highlights real-world factors that have accelerated the digitalization of the classroom. These factors do not have anything to do with promoting good education. Stories about digital natives and anecdotes that do not address the lack of basic academic proficiency seen in students from major school systems are nothing more than hollow attempts to keep the big tech gravy train rolling. With respect to the virus lock-downs, I am curious to what extent many parents who were confronted with having to spend time with their children during the day turned to phones to keep their children entertained.
For the next section, let us return to the following passage:
Instead of adapting digital technologies to the needs of education, they adapt education to the needs of digital technologies.Anthony Mir
Reading this passage made me think about a Microsoft blog post on its new app, Microsoft Reflect. Before explaining why, a brief introduction is in order. Make a mental bookmark here because I will return to this passage in our final section.
(Note: Microsoft is currently (as of March 16, 2023) blacklisting The New Leaf Journal from appearing in its Bing search results (since January 14, 2023). For that reason, I will not link to any live web pages on Microsoft’s website because I will not contribute to sending Microsoft any traffic so long as Microsoft refuses to send my site traffic. Thus, I offer a link to the Wayback Machine’s archived version here of Microsoft’s blog post.)
Microsoft touts Microsoft Reflect as an “educational app.” The app features, without any indication of irony, the “Feelings Monster.” Students are supposed to keep the Feelings Monster, a cartoon character that looks like it is being prepared for a future Pixar movie, informed of how they feel. It is clear from the blog post that students are supposed to be using this app during school. Teachers will be able to monitor their students’ feelings monsters, which, according to Microsoft, turns the app into “a check-in communication tool for educators and their students.”
(Note: The aesthetic design of the Feelings Monster is not bad. I feel bad that it was saddled with such an inane job.)
Microsoft offers several examples in its blog post about how this is supposed to work. For example, an unnamed seventh grader, presumably a 12-13-year old child, overhears something that makes him or her upset. Rather than addressing the situation with his or her classmates, going straight to the teacher if it was serious, a parent, or deciding that maybe whatever it was is not a big deal, the student shares his or her feelings with Microsoft’s app. The teacher sees the students’ Feelings Monster and immediately convenes a conference between the aggrieved student and whoever said something in passing that upset the student. We are told the issue was resolved in three minutes. Microsoft insists that the situation would have lingered all day in a “traditional classroom.”
Beyond the fact that there is no rational reason for using a Microsoft app behind a screen as a go-between for students and teachers to communicate with one another, the seventh grade example which Microsoft led with struck me as odd. The idea of a teacher intervening in some anodyne misunderstanding between students in his or her classes sounds appropriate for five, six, and seven year olds. 13-year olds should probably be moving toward resolving the sorts of annoyances and misunderstandings that will arise in any kind of group environment without needing to rush to a teacher. Not only is Microsoft’s app an obvious boondoggle, its purported benefit would serve to make first graders out of seventh graders.
(Note: I was in middle school within the previous 20 years (barely…). Middle school kids are the worst. I returned to my middle school as a high school senior to help with two classes for “senior involvement” and told my former middle school teacher, who taught one of the classes, that I had no idea how she took middle school on. I say this to note that my well-founded mockery of the above scenario offered by Microsoft should not be read as opposing adult intervention in student matters as a rule. There are certainly many situations in middle schools across the country that call for it, especially as we see an increase in criminality and anti-social behavior in many jurisdictions. But that there are serious situations that call for teachers to be proactive does not mean that it benefits anyone to have teachers sort out ordinary squabbles and misunderstandings between 13 year olds as if they were 6.)
Not content to regale us with its own examples, Microsoft solicited accounts from “digital learning and teaching facilitators” from school districts to explain how amazing Microsoft Reflect is. I submit for the record that I do not know what a digital learning and teaching facilitator is, but school districts that have them on staff should not run to taxpayers claiming poverty. But I digress. Before addressing the effusive praise of the select group of digital learning and teaching facilitators, we have a quote from Mr. Ivano Eberini, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Milan:
I’ve been surprised at the impact Reflect has had on my adult students. It’s clear that having a supportive outlet to share feelings with their professor has positively impacted the class environment.
That a university is (allegedly) having adult college students share their feelings with a cartoon monster on a phone app in order to ensure that their professors can see their current feelings is less surprising than it should be. But that Microsoft chose to highlight this example inadvertently highlights one of its true objectives in introducing this so-called education technology into schools. Microsoft, like Google and Apple through their products, wants to create dependency on its applications. This app is detrimental to young children who can be managed by their teachers and who should be spending their time learning basic skills, including how to interact with their peers instead of with screens. This app is detrimental to middle school students who should be growing up, coming into their own, and learning how to better regulate their emotions and address their problems at age level. Microsoft’s goal in promoting an app that infantile app to junior high school and high school students is to create a generation of infantile adults hooked on infantilizing tools. I will venture this particular example is a bit more harmful than convincing children that there is no alternative to an Office 365 subscription for word processing.
(This playbook is being used in other contexts with pharmaceutical companies being one of the main culprits. See, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics advocating for the use of weight-loss drugs on obese children while touting that more pharmaceutical interventions may be necessary when the children are older (not putting children, who can hardly hunt and gather their own food, on grossly unhealthy diets with no exercise is apparently passe)).
Microsoft sells products to schools, from which it makes money and collects information. Schools introduce non-academic fads into the classroom and smugly whistle past the graveyard of atrocious student achievement metrics. But I promised going into the section that I would address how schools adapt education to the needs of digital technologies rather than the other way around. To that effect, let us look at two quotes from the digital learning and teaching facilitators, collected by Microsoft for its blog post.
Just like they’re going to class to learn how to do math, they’re going to class and sharing their feelings.
This quote is subtly telling. Technology in the classroom is sold to parents as something that will help their children learn. I venture that well-intentioned parents may be led to believe that the technology will help their children learn basic math skills, for example. Microsoft alluded to this idea indirectly in its aggrieved seventh grader example, suggesting that the child sharing his or her feelings with an app would help her focus on his or her studies. But this quote suggests something different. The app is not, for lack of a better word, facilitating the child’s study of arithmetic. Instead, sharing feelings is now part of the curriculum. Ideally, children should learn how to better understand and regulate their feelings through learning to read, write, process ideas, and order their actions logically to achieve specific ends. I dare say that school, whether in the classroom or in a home schooling environment, should teach children that not everything is about them, that they are gaining knowledge and picking up skills to deal with other people and function in a world bigger than their own imaginations. The feelings app, intentionally or not, promotes a more self-centered idea – one that leads to adult college students making their professors aware of their feelings in real-time.
Next, we have a quote from a different digital learning and teaching facilitator that is even more on the nose:
I’ve heard from teachers that using the together view–which shows all the [feelings] monsters in one place–really informs how they approach education.
They are saying the quiet part out loud. The idea behind the Microsoft Reflect tool is not that it should aid teachers in providing their students with academic instruction and an environment conducive to learning. The goal behind the app is to transform the classroom, to change how teachers approach instruction. In fact, Microsoft itself, in offering the seventh grade example I discussed earlier, contrasted the Reflect-aided classroom with a traditional classroom. Microsoft Reflect, to the extent anyone takes it seriously, demands that teachers adapt education to accommodate the cartoon monster application. This demand makes sense, because demanding that children as young as elementary school students devote class time to sharing their feelings with a cartoon monster app on a tablet or laptop is not the sort of activity that blends in neatly with memorizing the multiplication tables or interacting with their peers and learning how to deal with others through trial and error.
Microsoft Reflect is just one of many examples – although it is admittedly a particularly darkly humorous example – of school systems lavishing money on screens and apps and then adapting entire classrooms to accommodate the screens, all without any critical, empirical, and philosophical examination of the effects of these decisions, both short- and long-term, on real-world students. The interesting thoughts in the essay I cited to, and the troubling example of Microsoft Reflect, should if nothing else inspire adults who know better to critically examine the promises being made by big tech conglomerates, bureaucrats, and legions of people wielding degrees from college education departments and consider whether what they are (literally) selling is legitimately in the best interest of students. None of this is to say that there is no place for technology in schools, but in determining whether a particular application of technology is appropriate, one should consider whether it advances the school’s educational mission or transmogrifies the mission into something else (see college athletics as an example of the latter trend in many cases). Microsoft Reflect is an obvious case of the dangers of not scrutinizing the latest fads in technology and education before they are afflicted on classrooms and a generation of children.