In her keynote address at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in June, Microsoft’s Danah Boyd advocated for open access to information, a positive message that is consistent with longstanding librarian values. However, Boyd is best known as an observer of kids’ technology. In this role, she vehemently instructs adults responsible for educating children to back away from guiding kids’ tech use. This advice, if heeded, profoundly undermines librarians’ vital leadership on children’s use of technology.
Boyd is critical of parents who set limits on kids’ tech use, labeling them as “fearful” in her Time magazine article, “Let Kids Run Wild Online,” and says, “The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom–plus communication.” In her book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and in her editorials, Boyd tells adults that kids need little, if any, direction on tech matters. She says, “Some days, I think that my only purpose in life is to serve as [a] broken record, trying desperately to remind people that ‘the kids are alright’ … ‘the kids are alright’ … ‘the kids are alright.’”
A Dangerous Myth
Boyd’s advice, that kids can navigate the tech environment with little help from adults, is the basic premise of the digital native-digital immigrant belief, originally put forward by video game developer Marc Prensky. He suggests that kids (“digital natives”) gain expertise with tech simply by growing up surrounded by the latest gadgets, and that adults’ (“digital immigrants’”) proper role is to load kids up with devices and essentially stand back and watch.
While commonly accepted in our popular culture, the native-immigrant belief is a tremendously harmful myth, as it confuses the ease with which kids use their gadgets with something that is far more important: understanding how kids’ use, or more typically the overuse, of entertainment technologies affects their emotional health, academic performance, and chances of success. Librarians, teachers, and parents are much better able to understand these concerns because they have adult brain development and greater life experience.
Nonetheless, the native-immigrant belief—which is heavily promoted by those invested in kids having no limits on their gadget use—has helped convince American parents to “let kids run wild online,” as the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the “majority of 8- to 18-year-olds say they don’t have any rules about the type of media content they can use or the amount of time they can spend with the medium.” The result is that teens now spend an incredible 8 hours a day between various entertainment screen technologies (e.g., video games and social networks) and talking and texting on the phone, while spending a scant 16 minutes a day using the computer at home for school.
Our kids’ wired-for-amusement lives clearly interfere with librarians’ goals of advancing kids’ reading and academic success. The more kids play video games the less time they spend reading and doing homework, and the less well they do academically. Similarly, the more time kids spend social networking the less well they do in school. This overuse of entertainment tech is one reason American students are increasingly struggling against their global peers. The latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are disturbing to say the least: the U.S. now ranks 30th in math, 23rd in science, and 20th in reading compared to the 64 other countries that took the exam.
Which kids are hurt most by advice that they should be given “freedom” with digital devices? Those of color whose parents have less access than more economically-advantaged families to guidance from college counselors and high-performing schools that kids are better served by focusing on schoolwork and productive uses of technology than playing with devices. A recent Pew Research Center report outlined troubling figures: 34% of African-American and 32% of Hispanic teens are online “almost constantly,” while 19% of White teens report using the Internet this often. Because teens’ top online activities are gaming and social networking, the extremely high levels of smartphone/online use by kids of color are likely to expand the racial achievement gap.
How Can Librarians Provide Leadership on Kids’ Technology
Consider these actions to advance children’s and teens’ success and help them use technology productively:
- Help parents, teachers, and schools understand that the digital native-digital immigrant belief is a myth, and that children, and even teens, are not developmentally capable of navigating the tech environment alone.
- Encourage caregivers to limit kids’ use of entertainment technologies, and instead foster their learning of educational fundamentals (e.g., reading and math) and productive uses of technology.
- Advocate that families “parent like a tech exec.” In stark contrast to Boyd’s advice, Bill Gates (the co-founder of Boyd’s own company, Microsoft) set strong limits on his own kids’ tech use, as did Apple’s Steve Jobs and other leading tech execs, as described in the New York Times’ article, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent.” Typical limits set by tech execs include no gadget use on weekdays, computers only being used for homework on school nights, and no screens in the bedroom.
- Make special efforts to reach out to children and families of color, as well as less advantaged families, to promote kids’ focus on reading, academics, and the productive use of technology.
Today’s guest post was written by Richard Freed, Ph.D., the author of Wired Child: Debunking Popular Technology Myths, a practical guide for raising kids in the digital age. A child and adolescent psychologist with more than twenty years of clinical experience, Dr. Freed completed his professional training at Cambridge Hospital/Harvard Medical School and the California School of Professional Psychology. He lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife and two daughters. To learn more, visit www.RichardFreed.com
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