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Technology may not be disrupting education, but it is disrupting childhood.

Carbondale Mayor Dan Richardson recently wrote in these pages about disruptive technology -- innovations that completely disrupt an industry -- and how that affects local governance. There is also a lot of buzz about how technology is disrupting the field of education. In fact, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who coined the theory of disruptive innovations, claims that technology, itself, is the true disruptor in our schools.

Christensen argues that technology will create more personalized learning in schools, allowing students to learn at their own rates, in their own ways, and to make more choices about their own learning. Technology will put students at the center of their learning. It’s a compelling vision, and now that we have computer devices for all students in grades 4-12 in all Roaring Fork schools, we might expect to see it taking off.

However, there is a competing theory for how easy it is for disruptive innovation to fundamentally change our schools. Historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban argue that no matter how many new technologies have been introduced over the last century or more, the pervasive “grammar of schooling” -- how kids learn, how teachers and students interact, how time and space are organized -- remains constant. They illustrate how, in spite of a century of new technologies -- from textbooks to projectors to ballpoint pens -- most classrooms have remained teacher-centered.

Whether technology will truly transform schools as we know them remains to be seen. However, even within a traditional classroom environment, technology is being leveraged to enhance learning. Teachers in Roaring Fork Schools are using technology to engage students in authentic project-based learning, give students access to the wealth of educational content available online, and prepare students for tomorrow’s economy with everything from robotics to 3D printing to AP Computer Science courses.

While we are working to fully realize the educational value of technology in our schools, we are concerned that, outside of school, it is having a negative impact on our kids.

There is an accumulating wave of evidence that non-educational technology -- smartphones and social media in particular -- is having a negative influence on our children. A Kaiser Foundation study found that children are spending more than 7.5 hours per day on entertainment technology, and that number is rising.

Heavy technology use correlates with lower grades, fewer friendships, less sleep, worse relationships with parents, less happiness, and more getting into trouble. That’s right -- heavier technology users with less time on their hands are still finding time to get into more trouble.

Constant access to technology has an adverse effect on brain development. It causes children to become overstimulated by pretend events they experience in the digital world, creating heightened and constant stress reactions. It desensitizes them to real-world experiences that call for a range of appropriate emotional responses from fear to empathy.

Technology is contributing to childhood obesity. While there are other culprits as well, time spent on technology is time not spent in active play. Children today spend about half as much time outside as their parents did, and about half as much time in active play as they do in front of a screen. Of course, they are more likely to be eating while they are sitting in front of a TV or computer screen than while outside playing.

Increased screen time also leads to social isolation. Ironically, social media does not help children feel more socially connected. Studies have shown that whereas face-to-face interactions enhance well being, Facebook makes people feel more alone. For some reason, people do not experience the same positive psychological effects from digital interactions as from face-to-face ones. Rather than feeling included, teens see all the fun things that other people are doing in their social media posts and feel left out. Furthermore, the digital environment provides a largely unregulated playground where bullying and meanness run rampant.

It’s too early to know the long-term effects of this disruptive technology on society. We are just now celebrating the 10th anniversary of the iphone, and it’s only been about 20 years since most of us have been using the internet, but there are some things we can do.

Limit non-educational screen time to less than a couple hours per day for school-aged children. Eat device-free meals together as a family. Do other device-free things with children, like going for a walk, playing a board game, visiting neighbors, and taking them to the park, library, or rec center. If you have young children, filter the programs they watch, the games they play, and the social media they consume. Talk with your teens and tweens about developing healthy technology habits so they can leverage these powerful tools for their benefit while avoiding the pitfalls of overuse. All Roaring Fork students are learning about ‘digital citizenship’ this year, and parents can build on those lessons with the free resources available at commonsensemedia.org.

As I write this article, it’s too late to cross that latest digital device off your Christmas list. Make the gift how you provide healthy and active alternatives in the year ahead, while monitoring your child’s use of technology.

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