It is rare, these days, to have a politician commenting sensibly on ‘childhood’, let alone a Labour politician. Three cheers, then, for Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary. He recently told The Daily Telegraph that too many parents are so addicted to their smartphones that they are failing to talk to their children. Too many parents, he warns, “don’t understand the cumulative impact of scrolling down their smartphone rather than engaging with their 6-month-old.”
His contribution to the debate on the impact of technology on our children comes in the wake of report from the University of Derby. The report concluded: “Smartphones are psychologically addictive, encourage narcissistic tendencies and should come with a health warning.”
Primary school head teachers are becoming increasingly concerned. According to Hunt, all of those whom he meets believe that the problem of retarded levels of speech and language among children is a growing problem “and they blame the iPhone.” Twenty-five years ago, I recall being shocked to enter classrooms in which there were 5-year-olds unable to speak. These days, it is equally shocking but, sadly, no longer surprising.
Hunt is right to place some of the blame, at least, on inadequate parenting. There is nothing more important for toddlers than to have mum and dad talking to them, reading to them, engaging with them ‘eye to eye’. This cannot happen if the smartphone or tablet screen or, for that matter, the TV screen is the parent’s centre of attention. Technology junkies do not make the good parents and, in the interests of children, we should not be afraid to say so.
Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and ‘play’ that is shared and exploratory may seem a long way from SATs tests, government targets and Ofsted box-ticking but they are the building blocks of family life, of productive schooling and of a happy childhood. Without the foundations of communication and inter-personal relationships being established in early childhood, all subsequent efforts by school and teachers on behalf of the child will be undermined. In common parlance, the whole edifice of childhood and education in 2015 is too often being built on sand.
Alongside the failure of many smartphone-addicted parents to engage with their children has come an equally pernicious development in the form of technology-addicted children. For this feature of modern childhood, schools and education ‘experts’ are even more to blame than parents.
Digital technology saturates our schools at least as much as it saturates our homes. Indeed, an insufficient use of technology will bring strong condemnation from Ofsted. Too often, the choice of what is taught in our classrooms is dictated not by the ‘subject’ but by the extent to which it can act as a vehicle for teaching computer ‘skills’. The integrity of individual ‘subjects’ is consequently sacrificed to satisfy the needs of the technology. Small wonder, then, that subject content comes in a diluted, dumbed-down form. Poetry, for example, now has its Twitter version for the classroom. Shakespeare and Shelley, it seems, are on the way ‘out’ and ‘Twihiaku’ or ‘Micropoetry’ are very much on the way in. For the benefit of an interview on the matter that I did for Sky News I composed my own version:
“Roll up, roll up, tweet all about it
Fast-food verse for computer-fried brains
Burghers of poetry wrapped up in a Tweet
Beef up your addiction to the technology treat!”
Where the technology is taking us we cannot be certain. Of course, educators cannot be technology Luddites. It has an important part to play in preparing children for the world in which they live both now and in the future. Nevertheless, a ‘down side’ is becoming more evident and Tristram Hunt’s warning is far from telling the whole story. As the research of the eminent scientist, Baroness Greenfield, has shown, in physiological terms the brains of children have been changed by the virtual world of computer living. To what effect we do not yet know.