I am frightened, as are many in my occupation. I am a teacher inundated on a daily basis with statistics about students' poor performance on state tests. In school we receive weekly notices about curriculum development and changes in the core standards. Newspapers and magazines often feature articles about poor-performing schools and teacher accountability. Now there are new evaluation procedures linking teacher performance reviews with student academic achievement.
Why are so many of our students doing poorly on measures of academic achievement? Can lackluster teaching be the only reason for poor performance? I consider my colleagues and myself to be dedicated professionals. We work tirelessly to adapt to our students' academic, behavioral and emotional needs. Through the years, it has become clearer and clearer that we are working at cross-purposes with a culture that seems to place greater value on social networking and gaming than education and academic rigor.
The world is changing at a pace faster than we can keep up. Just 10 short years ago, we were not constantly "connected" and didn't have ready access to the volume of information we have now. With a click of a button on a cell phone, iPad or PC, we can communicate with just about anyone, do in-depth research and download a multitude of facts and information. Media and gaming opportunities are numerous, and developing even as I write this.
Advertisers inundate the public daily with reasons why we "need" to stay connected, but what we really need to do is consider what all of this is doing to our children. There has been a huge increase in the number of hours most children spend each day occupied with social networking, video gaming, watching television and texting. The side effects caused by these activities should sound a warning to all of us.
Decreased academic performance resulting in lower test scores, attention problems that are often severe, poor social and language skills and other behavioral concerns have been documented in study after study. Other research shows that actual physical changes occur in the brain. These changes can alter a host of human interactions, emotions and day-to-day functioning, including empathy, concentration and impulse control.
Conversations with my colleagues confirm distressing changes in elementary-age children. All have noted increases, particularly in the last 10 years, of severe attention problems, poor language skills, behavioral and social skills issues, and academic deficiencies. Children are spending more time indoors watching television, playing video games and using the Internet. Reading books has become secondary to these other activities.
It stands to reason that if something has the potential to be harmful and debilitating, we should be taking steps to protect our children from its devastating effects. Unfortunately, the statistics show the opposite is true: children as young as 8 years old spend six and a half hours every day engaged with technology and media.
In addition to affecting student academic success, some of the research suggests that the increase in bullying and childhood obesity in today's youth can be directly attributed to these passive forms of so-called entertainment. If a child spends six hours a day playing on a computer, watching television, gaming, chatting and texting on a phone, then those are six hours this child is not reading, exercising, socializing and interacting with family and friends in a meaningful, face-to-face way.
Instead of technology making us smarter, the evidence clearly shows it is having the opposite effect. Let's stop for a moment and think about the potential consequences if this trend continues:
The majority of adults and children are unable to focus and maintain attention to tasks for very long periods. Activities like balancing a checkbook, filling out a job application and following through on household chores are a struggle.
Reading for meaning and true comprehension is too difficult. Deep thinking skills needed for planning and problem solving are impaired because of the amount of sustained attention they require. Poor language development, inadequate social skills, lack of empathy, impulse control and obesity are the norm for our children.
Creative thought is dependent on technology. Behavior problems are rampant and difficult to control. Schools and law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed. People are less and less able to have face-to-face contact, preferring instead to communicate through technology.
Lest you think this is too farfetched, consider the most recent statistics on academic performance, childhood obesity and attention deficit disorder. Look around you in public places and observe how many people are texting or talking on their cellphones.
Every day, teachers like me are working to remediate the many problems associated with the negative effects of too much technology. We are vested with part of the responsibility for developing the skills our students need to be productive, intelligent and contributing members of society -- in short, good future citizens. But we must begin now to do more collaboratively as a culture to support these skills, and we can start today by:
* Demanding ongoing research regarding the effects of technology on children.
* Acknowledging the potential harm technology can cause our children.
* Limiting usage based on age.
* Educating parents about what research is showing.
* Encouraging families to establish technology-free times.
Treating symptoms while ignoring the cause is not a healthy practice. Knowing what we know, we must take steps now to remedy the problem at its source. Our children are depending on us.
Maria J. Steuernagel is a teacher at Gowanda Elementary School.