Discipline & technology
Since the internet hosts both trouble and an array of opportunities, children’s use of smartphones and technology must be disciplined
There is a general refrain from parents that their children are spending too much time with their smartphones – chatting, SMSing or being on social media. Besides neglecting their studies, parents contend that children are being exposed to bad influences from webosphere. All of this has happened in the last 10-15 years and is being fuelled by the easy availability of communication technology like smartphones and the internet.
If you ask children about these issues, they say that smartphones and the internet allow them to be in touch with their friends and, in the process, they feel they know much more about the world than their parents ever knew. In this modern, fast-paced society, they feel that they have to be up-to-date with information or they will lose out. So, who is right? I believe both the parents and the children are partially right.
Communication technology, which includes smartphones, internet, etc., has a powerful hold on children's brains. Their brains, at a young age, have the maximum power – which means that they require tremendous amounts of inputs and information to wire different neural pathways. The formation of various neural pathways helps in satisfying desires and needs. Interactive technology like smartphones, iPads, internet, etc., allows instant gratification and, hence, is very addictive. This fritters away their time and energy – they are unable to focus on the work at hand, resulting in their attention-deficit behaviour.
Instant gratification also fuels the greed-impulse and, with no discipline to control this, it is the genesis of greed that is exhibited in adulthood. This greed-impulse has unfortunately resulted in young children exhibiting unsavoury behaviour – such as making more money by stealing cell phones, cameras, etc., and becoming prey to paedophiles and prostitution gangs.
Meenakshi Satpute (name changed) is a school teacher in a small rural town in Maharashtra. Her house was burgled recently and her smartphone, camera and iPad were stolen. The needle of suspicion pointed to a young boy living close to her house. When he was taken to the local police station and questioned, he informed them that a majority of students in his 8th standard class steal these gadgets as a part of play, to show off who has stolen the best gadget. It is a game for them and they also sell these stolen goods to earn money.
This is not an isolated incident. Quite a number of school children all over the country indulge in such behaviour. How to curb this greed tendency in children is a great challenge for both parents and teachers.
Too often, parents give their children smartphones and iPads or deposit them in front of a TV when they are toddlers. Part of the reason is that by giving them such "toys", parents feel that the child will not bother them since s/he will be entertained and immersed in playing with the device. But, by exposing children to such tools at a very early age, parents are playing with fire as there is no mechanism to check discipline in usage.
This does not mean that we should not expose children to modern technology. Technology begets technology. Without being exposed to technology, children's imagination will not be fired and they will not be able to contribute later to its development.
I became an engineer because I was exposed as a child to steam engines and the power of steam instilled in me the desire to be involved with technology and getting an engineering education was the first step. All great feats of science and technology have resulted from people who, as children, were inspired by some aspect of gadgets and technology. For example, Einstein as a child was inspired by the magnetic compass. There are innumerable examples of inventors the world over who were inspired by technology when they were children. However, older technologies were not very interactive and so the child had to use tremendous imagination thinking about it and what could or would be. That required quite a lot of effort and fired curiosity.
With today's "toys", like the internet and smartphones which provide instant information and feedback, curiosity and the desire to think deeply about a problem has been lost. This is the reason why children today do not apply themselves too much in solving problems or creating new inventions but have a tremendous amount of information at hand. Also, with such interactive technologies children seem to be losing the ability to daydream. Daydreaming is a very powerful mechanism for the development of imagination and helps in sharpening the brain.
The biggest challenge for parents and teachers is how to teach children the discipline of using communication technology. It should be used for both fun and learning so that the tremendous energies which children garner can be channelled for the betterment of society.
There are already some interesting experiments being done in the US, where children use smartphones and the internet to design projects which they can fabricate using 3-D printing technology. If hands-on projects can be planned and made using communication technology, then children can be weaned away from only chatting, SMSing and engaging in other less-productive uses. For this, teachers have to work hard to develop an appropriate curriculum.
Communication technology for children is not all bad if used with discipline and if children are guided and inspired in the right direction.
(The author is the Director, Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute at Phaltan, Maharashtra. The views expressed are strictly personal)