T.V., No! Updated

I’m revisiting an old topic – the harm of screen watching. In 1988 I gave a speech on campus claiming that screen watching was doing harm to peoples’ thinking, communicating and living well. It was called T.V., No!

Since 1988 there have been many serious studies about the effects of online learning. However, none of them has included the added effects from the Pandemic, which started in 2019, and continues as this is written. There’s little doubt that it will have a strong impact, once the data is analyzed. Yet even without that data, available research has shown clearly that screen time impacts what and how well we learn. Here are five relevant studies.

(1) For young children, screen time is seriously damaging. Catherine Berken MD, of Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto published a study (2011-2015) – summarized in this interview with PBS news – that it slows speech development. (2) The Canadian Pediatric Society gives an analysis of effects on children of different ages – and advises caution . Published Dec 2017, it’s based on 87 research papers!  (3) Oxford University, UK, suggests there is no apparent direct connection between hours spent and ill effects on young people, of “moderate use“; and it can even be helpful. A quote from the article shows a rather obvious proviso: “Instead these findings indicate that other aspects of digital engagement, including what is on screens and how caregivers moderate their use, are far more important.” (4) Harvard Medical School gives a quick survey of the multiple ill effects of digitized activity. (5) Lastly, a Blue Cross NC study suggests the development of a young child’s brain can be impacted, when screen time pushes other more important experiences aside.

Let me emphasize that time spent online at school, and other digital activity at any age is only one factor – not the primary one – in the downward trend of education. Much experience and study have indicated a steady general decline in factual knowledge (science, history, literature, politics, economics) as well as critical thinking, interest in learning, and the ability to make thoughtful moral choices.  As I have suggested in other blogs, essays, and a book – Inequity, Iniquity and Debt – this decline is causally linked to the power and influence of those who control the money system, and thus to governmental laws and the viewpoints that popular media promote as well, which dominate most citizens’ everyday lives with little regard for the ‘public good’.

Now that we’re well into the 21st Century, I recommend going back almost twenty years, to a BBC documentary (2002) called The Century of the Self. It shows how Edward Bernays changed marketing techniques from ‘what you need‘, to ‘what you want‘, using Freud’s knowledge of our subconscious motivators. Bernays’ influence is increasingly felt throughout American society, and other lands as well who have bought into the American Dream.

I taught in classrooms for over 45 years, mostly to community college students in and around Chicago. Since retiring over 10 years ago I’ve continued research and observation – here and abroad – about educational theories, methods and outcomes. If I were a betting person (as are the tech and media giants, and the government agencies they influence), I’d wager that the negative trends will continue. But then, how would we determine what are ‘negative trends’, and what ‘the facts’ are? Who would be a fair judge? Objective arguments seldom win convincingly today. Or to put it differently, most people believe what makes them feel good to believe – myself included. So I’ll just predict that the decline will continue, and what good education there is will continue to be unfairly distributed.

It’s possible I’m guilty of the ‘anecdotal fallacy’, basing my big generalities about education on limited experience.  I accept that (as should every ‘academic’ researcher). Even so, I still claim American education – both private and public – has been ‘dumbing down’ for a long time. Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind had much to say about it. The book was, and 35 years later still is controversial.

Ten years ago now about half of undergraduates showed no improvement in knowledge after the first two years of college! The situation has not improved since; it’s part of a long trend. Such was the conclusion of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s study Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campus.  The reasons for it can be seen in this summary section copied by NPR news.

Technology isn’t bad in itself, of course. I’m not a  ‘Luddite’. It depends on how it’s used. If the point is to ‘educate’ as many people as possible, we might think the world wide reach of the World Wide Web is ideal. That’s only from the perspective of saving money, however. Education is personal; it’s not a matter of mass production to reduce expenditures. Some of my colleagues were very upset when our school admistrators started calling students “customers.” 

Efforts at mass education have other effects too. Students often ‘feel like a number’. At times, simply changing the environment of learning can help fix that. Don’t stand behind a lectern, or speak to a crowded amphitheater, or have them lined up in rows, if you want to engage students. And engagement is what is needed. Of course distraction, fatigue and boredom will happen, but an alert teacher can draw students in, when she gets them to question, not memorize, what matters to their learning.

“Knowing” can’t be reduced to memorized content, although sometimes that’s important. I had a wonderful math teacher in High School, who also was a physicist and worked with Einstein at Princeton. He said “I never keep in my head what I can keep in my briefcase.” He showed us what it means to learn – especially to care about learning – and not be satisfied to stop when you  get ‘the answer’. 

It’s perfectly understandable that many people are not ‘academically inclined’ or even capable of a university education, and would prefer a job skill to a degree. This difference has long been seen in many countries – all over Europe included – where ‘aptitude tests’ at the end of secondary school determine whether to encourage (and support!) pursuing a University degree, or a vocational and trades option. It has be suggested also that general humanities has lost students because of increased demand for STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) – all of which provide much greater chance for high income. But that sales pitch is not true for many students, hopeful as they may be.

In a lighter vein, this sarcastic recent cartoon suggests what knowing has come to mean today. But its humor can only be seen by those familiar with Socrates – readers of this blog included of course.

Does screen time generally influence learning for good or for ill? Despite my negative report, the studies don’t provide a clear, definitive answer to the question. That’s not surprising. The safe answer is ‘It depends’ – on the age level, demographics, desires and goals of students, and costs, etc.

Still, to me, education seems more a Devolution than Evolution. Teachers may enjoy this bit of humor too, though what is shows isn’t funny.

The cartoon above underscores what I see as a paradoxical trend in Western history, since the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. It involves the obvious “revolutions” of democracy, capitalism and industrial technology, and the social consequences of all of them. I realize that scholars spend lifetimes on these huge changes; but allow me a few general thoughts about them to encourage interest and reaction.

(1) The last entry of the cartoon 2018 – “Color the rectangle with the color you prefer” focuses on the sales pitch that Bernays started, “You can have what you want”. It’s pitifully ludicrous. (2) If high tech knowledge is truly a key to material success, the knowledge can’t be just whatever you think it is, much less what you prefer it to be. (3) Democracy is not ‘normal’ for any society; it needs constant work. In America today it has devolved from a system that requires careful thinking, open discussion, and acceptable compromise into a mindless bi-polar warfare between two parties. And these parties claim to represent their constituents’ best interests, while manipulating them with advertising trickery.

(4) Hypocritical talk and memes about the importance of ‘self’ and ‘individuality’ are contradicted by reality, where true individuality and responsible membership in a group or community have been perverted or lost. (5) Men who once were happy to have special skills they could pass on to their children became ‘cogs in the wheels’ of industry, dominated by a few oligarchic owners. (6) And women, who could do anything men could do, plus bearing children, were forced to support the system that abused them, in the name of ‘liberation’.

(7) Finally, I would remind readers of the harm done to their mental health by addiction to high technology. This topic is covered in Adam Alter’s 2017 book, Irresistible – The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Other research (2013) shows cell phones damage conversations even between strangers. “They’re distracting because they remind us of the world beyond the immediate conversation, and the only solution is to remove them completely.” And another (2018) study shows the ill effects on students of just having cell phones present. Need I say cell phones are ubiquitous? 40% of the world’s population uses them. Not all for ill, of course.