BY ELAINE MAIMON
It’s a 21st-century miracle. With the click of a key, you can find out just about anything on your smartphone. Yet, parents and teachers are justifiably alarmed about the negative influence of too much internet on children. And we should all be concerned about the long-lasting impact of the easy spread of misinformation, leading to the acceleration of deep divisions in our society.
It is imperative that we address the harms of too much uninformed web time for our children and even adults. But let’s also take a moment to dwell on the internet’s wonders. I write from the perspective of someone who vividly remembers the world before the web and the effort it took to find out about anything and to connect with friends across geography and time.
Some examples: Last week a friend presented us with a huge number of poblano peppers fresh from her garden. How were we to use them in a two-person household, especially when the two people did not favor a high degree of culinary heat?
Click, click — recipes for poblano peppers. The internet to the rescue.
More assistance from the internet:
Concern about the mass exodus of teachers prompted my memory of an excellent point made by learning theorist Pat Carini, who urges teachers to find intellectual stimulation in observing children learn. I remembered the phrase, “Describing I pause, and pausing, attend.”
Click, click — I find Patricia Carini’s Starting Strong: A Different Look at Children, School, and Standards, part of the Practitioner Inquire series, available on paperback from Amazon for $1.98.
Click, click — friends I haven’t seen in person for a quarter century, respond on Facebook to an article I have circulated.
What further evidence do we need that the internet has the capacity to connect the world? “Only Connect,” writes E. M. Forster in his famous epitaph to Howard’s End. And through connecting, the world would be a better and safer place.
But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the internet has led to tribalism. Too many people block out connection with anyone who does not already share their beliefs. They access only those websites that confirm ideas that they already hold.
Technology is not the problem
Advances in technology are evidence of human creativity and innovation, but they have always caused concern. Plato worried that the technology of writing things down (just coming into regular use among the upper classes in the 5th century B.C.) would negatively alter the human capacity for memorizing texts. That did happen to some extent. People today cannot so easily memorize poetry, but on the whole the power of writing greatly minimized this loss.
Gain usually comes accompanied by loss. Splitting the atom has led to extraordinary advances in science, as well as the means for mass destruction. We can’t blame technology. Instead, we should focus on human morality and judgment.
It’s not so very long ago that intelligent people railed against television as something that would soften the mind. Sure, then and now there are plenty of stupid things on TV. But TV has also made it possible for more viewers to see full performances of Shakespeare’s plays than had ever before cumulatively seen them since their staging at the Globe Theater. And now few question the access to great film, drama, comedy, and music available in everyone’s living room and on everyone’s computer screen.
Teach Students to Use the Internet Responsibly
I’m not one of those adults who sees kids’ attachment to their phones as the end of civilization as we know it.
One friend told me about an incident when her teen-age granddaughter was focused on her phone during a lively family conversation. When her mom chided her for disengagement, she found out that the kid was listening attentively to the conversation and Googling the words and phrases not in her vocabulary.
Even though kids might be more responsible than we guess about screen time, I do believe that we must integrate the responsible use of technology into all levels of education.
That education should begin early. Colleges of education should incorporate teaching the internet into teacher preparation programs, K-12. From very early on, students can learn to use their phones to seek multiple points of view and learn to evaluate how proponents use evidence.
Young children will enjoy — and learn from — a podcast called “Smash Boom Best,” which describes itself this way: “Every episode takes two cool things, smashes them together and lets you decide which is best. Our debaters use facts and passion to make their case — teaching listeners to defend their own opinions along the way.” One recent episode pits sundaes vs. nachos.
Another useful website is newsela.com, which summarizes news articles from many sources — Washington Post, Newsweek, etc .— for a variety of reading levels. It’s never too early to teach students to gather information from multiple sources and to evaluate what they read.
Select colleges that transparently incorporate the responsible use of the internet into instruction, freshman through senior year
I’ve long contemplated this issue.
Full disclosure, I have co-authored A Writer’s Resource, a widely used college composition textbook that teaches students to evaluate anything they find on the internet. In it, we suggest:
…anyone can create a Web site that looks attractive but contains nonsense. Similarly, the people who post blogs, discussion lists, and news groups may not be experts or even marginally well informed. Some information on the Web is valuable and timely, but much of it is not, so you must assess it carefully.
We provide questions to determine whether online information is reliable:
Who is hosting the site?
If it’s an individual site, who is speaking? If you cannot identify who it is, do not use the source.
What links does the site provide? If the links are questionable, the original site is not credible.
Is information on the site documented and supported by credible sources?
The internet poses many dangers. But screen time is not going away. Education is the pathway to defeat the internet-induced tribalism threatening our democracy. It’s always appropriate to ask someone passionately defending a lie — election denial, vaccine-induced illnesses, alleged pedophilia — what’s your source? “I read it on the Web” should never be enough in an educated society — and Americans must make sure we continue to be an educated society.
By the way, what I learned from the internet about poblano peppers (besides cooking them in olive oil not butter-- something that every cook but me already knew) is that poblanos best fulfill their culinary purpose when mixed with many other ingredients—cheese, herbs, onions, tomatoes. The connectivity of the internet brought me to many diverse, inclusive, and delicious recipes—from chile rellenos to omelets.
Things we can do
Teach kids to use smart phones responsibly
Support teacher education programs that incorporate the internet, K-12
Support college programs that that teach the power and dangers of the internet
Make a habit of asking people, “What’s your source?”
Rather than wringing our hands over kids’ attachments to their phones, let’s engage them in the connective and unifying powers of the internet.