DES MOINES, Iowa — Children grow up carrying devices in their pockets with the ability to access all the amassed knowledge of humanity, for good or ill.
The digital age presents both unlimited possibility and frightening threats for children, families and schools around the world. Ever-evolving technology has added a new layer of complexity to an unprecedented array of challenges facing Iowa’s kids, the subject of a yearlong Des Moines Registerspecial project.
Today more than ever, technology develops faster than society can determine its implications, experts say. Among the issues confronting children and parents:
REPUTATIONS: From their first venture onto the Internet, today’s children create a digital footprint of potential permanence. Teachers and parents, often with limited knowledge of new technologies, are scrambling to coach their children how to manage the reputations they build through blogs and social media use, and to understand the potential harm of lives made public via the Internet.
The hope, teachers say, is to avoid the scenario illustrated by a University of Iowa student who earlier this month defiantly tweeted about her breath-alcohol level and arrest at a football game. That led to national news coverage — and online ridicule — of “Vodka Sam,” the nickname tied to the student’s purported Twitter account.
BULLYING: Texting and social media have extended bullying from the school grounds to an anyplace, 24-hour scourge.
“There is concern that because students are always connected, they cannot get away from bullying even after they physically leave school,” said John Palfrey, author of the book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.
DIGITAL DIVIDE: Iowa families with low or moderate incomes struggle to gain access to expensive technology and connect to the Internet. Gov. Terry Branstad considers access to technology so important that he ordered state officials earlier this month to come up with a plan to guarantee every Iowan Internet access by 2015.
The digital divide is widest for the poor, according to data from Connect Iowa, a partnership between the Iowa Department of Economic Development andConnected Nation, a national task force dedicated to increasing access and adoption of broadband communication. Just 58% of Iowa households with an income of $25,000 or less own a computer, compared with a statewide average of 81%.
The lack of exposure to digital learning compounds other missed educational opportunities that can stunt poor children’s success in school and, later, the workplace.
PREDATORS: With Internet access comes concerns about predators who would try to lure children into scams, crime or sexual exploitation. A 2010 U.S. Department of Justice report to Congress found that federal child exploitation prosecutions had climbed 40% since 2006. The biggest contributor to the rising caseload: technology-facilitated child exploitation, including child pornography and use of the Internet to entice children.
Lisa Adams, a Norwalk, Iowa, mother of three daughters, recounted that the preteen daughter of a family friend was stalked online by an adult man. The police were involved.
“I’m terrified,” said Adams, who teaches developmentally disabled students for Johnston, Iowa, schools. “I don’t know what good can come from having unrestricted, 24-hour access to all this technology. Then again, I’m the one who sleeps with her phone by the bed and uses it as an alarm clock.”
OVERUSE: Research shows that constant technology use can drift from habit to addiction. Some youths experience anxiety when cut off from their feeds for extended periods, said Candice Odgers of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.
“Many kids are glued to their phones,” she said. “It can reach a point where it’s unhealthy, especially if they never disconnect. Some sleep with their phones under their pillow, so they will hear a text come in — or feel it when the phone vibrates — so they can respond at all hours of the night because they’re worried that if they don’t respond, they will offend someone.”
In a 2010 experiment conducted by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, young people experienced withdrawal symptoms, including feeling anxious, depressed and “itching like a crackhead” when asked to ditch their smartphones for 24 hours.
Frequent technology use also is associated with lack of exercise and outdoor activities. In a 2009 Tucson Children’s Assessment of Sleep Apnea study, heavy use was linked to sleep deprivation, which can cause obesity, depression and other psychological troubles.
Teaching proper use
But amid this plethora of potential dangers, today’s technology also presents before-unimagined possibilities to entertain, educate and inspire.
Teachers are working to seamlessly integrate cellphones, iPads and laptops into their classrooms.
That allows teachers to partner with parents in teaching digital citizenship, pushing the idea of the long-term consequences — and benefits — of how kids manage their online presence and behaviors.
“The goal is to get students to treat digital presence like a portfolio,” said Scott McLeod, a former University of Kentucky professor who is director of innovation for the Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency, which serves about 45 public school districts in north central and northwest Iowa. “You want students developing critical thinking skills while they navigate the digital world. You want them asking questions about whether this photo is appropriate or could I word this better?”
Some educators once feared that the abbreviations and tangled syntax of texting would degrade writing skills. But blogging and social media use by students have instead encouraged teamwork and improved writing performance, according to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, a non-profit research organization.
Of 2,462 teachers surveyed, 96% said digital technologies “allow students to share their work with a wider and more varied audience.” Nearly 80% said the technologies “encourage greater collaboration among students.”
Improving research skills
The continued merging of technology and the classroom also helps students become better evaluators of information.
In earlier years, Luke Safris, 14, a student at Johnston High School, would use the first few links that popped up in a Google search to find information he sought. Now, Safris, a debate team member, is more careful with which sources he trusts.
“You have to look closer,” he said. “Is it .com or .org? Who made the page? What biases are there? You have to think about it and not just go with the first thing you see.”
Language arts teacher Erin Olson hopes to inspire thinking like Safris’ among all her students. Olson helps teachers integrate technology into classrooms. She understands the concerns of teachers who prefer more traditional methods to reach students, and of parents who worry districts are spending too much money on what they perceive as playthings.
But Olson sees it differently.
“Not using technology isn’t an option,” she said. “We’re preparing students for their tomorrows. Not teaching technology, not discussing it or using it is like having a big lake in your backyard and not knowing how to swim.”