Technology’s impact on students

I have been an administrator in Catholic classical schools—both independent and diocesan—for over 12 years. Over this time, the level of engagement with intellectual topics and concepts by current students has significantly declined from where it was five or six years ago.

It’s a very palpable change. It is difficult to pinpoint the cause exactly. However, it cannot be denied that changes in technology, communication, and media have been accelerating and they are changing behaviors for both children and adults.

I am not alone in this observation. Last summer, Deacon Brad Watkins, headmaster of St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, N.C., gave a keynote presentation at the Catholic Classical Schools Conference. In his presentation, he related similar observations of students having a more difficult time with sustained focus now as opposed to some five or six years ago. He then presented research on the relative ease of mylanization (hardwiring) of brain neurons in children as opposed to adults. Deacon Watkins suggested that we really need to examine how technology and social media are “hardwiring” the brains of young people today, because there are undeniable changes taking place.

In an article published by The Atlantic, titled Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” researcher Jean Twenge presented evidence documenting significant behavioral changes in adolescents born after 1995. This is the generation that has grown up with almost universal possession of smartphones. Thus, Twenge has dubbed the post-Millennial generation as “iGen.”

In her research, she discovered the rather odd, but perhaps not surprising, fact that most iGen teens would rather stay home and interact with friends via social media than go out and actually do something in person with peers. Her more alarming discovery was a steep rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide among iGen teens and preteens. The inescapable conclusion is that handheld technology and virtual relationships via technology are having a negative impact on young people today. (Since her article was published, Twenge released a full-length book which more thoroughly presents her data and conclusions.)

More than 50 years earlier, a Canadian media theorist name Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” Back then most people thought McLuhan was a crackpot, and many people today still do. But McLuhan was just trying to say that it’s not just the content of media that affects us; the very nature and structure of various media deeply affects us in ways that we don’t realize. In an interview, circa 1969, McLuhan said:McLuhan interview

All media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment. Such an extension is an intensification, an amplification of an organ, sense or function, and whenever it takes place, the central nervous system appears to institute a self-protective numbing of the affected area, insulating and anesthetizing it from conscious awareness of what’s happening to it. It’s a process rather like that which occurs to the body under shock or stress conditions, or to the mind in line with the Freudian concept of repression.

I call this peculiar form of self-hypnosis Narcissus narcosis, a syndrome whereby man remains as unaware of the psychic and social effects of his new technology as a fish of the water it swims in. As a result, precisely at the point where a new media-induced environment becomes all pervasive and transmogrifies our sensory balance, it also becomes invisible

Well before the rapid rise of technology, McLuhan predicted that new devices and media would “rewire” the brain, and this rewiring would be at the expense of other abilities. McLuhan also predicted that changes in human behavior brought about by new technologies would be easy to overlook or ignore. This is especially real and dangerous for children.

When considering technology’s impact on educating today’s young people, we also need to take into account another reality in the growth of technology. If Moore’s Law continues to hold true (this is based on the historical trend since the late 1970s that the computing capability available for technological advances has doubled every two years, while simultaneously going down in cost at almost the same rate), we are about to see the exponential curve of technological advances accelerate in almost every field at a dizzying rate.

If we are already alarmed at how technology is changing how we think and learn, get ready for unprecedented rapid changes. From artificial intelligence to digital currency, to the internet of things, to virtual and augmented reality, new technologies will significantly change how we live.

When faced with this new and rapidly changing reality, there are no easy answers for Christian educators. It is clear that changes have already taken root in the young people we are serving.
Continued rapid technological advances seem inevitable. We need more broad-level discussions on how young people are being affected by technology. Obviously, parents need to better understand how various technologies affect children.

Above all, we need to re-center ourselves on the true goal of education. The late Stratford Caldecott wrote an excellent characterization of education’s true goal in his article “Toward a distinctively Catholic school.” He wrote:

The purpose of a Catholic education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is at least partly, and more importantly, to teach the ability to think, speak, and write. This was the function of the classical Trivium of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric, the essential foundations for the study of the various subjects in the Quadrivium. Yet even this falls short of the goal. More important than the ability to think—or, if you prefer, the highest aim of thought—is the ability to find meaning. We must be able to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation. For this the eye of a poet, or of a mystic, is needed. Education should lead to contemplation.

MO WOLTERING is the headmaster of Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Va.

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