Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What is Technology Doing For You?

Technology offers us some pretty amazing tools.  It's up to us to use them wisely.  But are we?

Lately I've been taking Jasper to more of the Portland community drop-in events for homeschoolers. It used to be that he'd refuse to go unless he knew one of his friends would be there.  Now he feels differently.  He loves some of these activities for their own sake, and he feels more outgoing about meeting new kids.  For my part, I've noticed that it can be downright brutal to go without a friend and try to strike up a conversation with strangers in the hopes of meeting new people.  Certainly not every time...but more and more often, parents are hunched over their phones.  When we first started homeschooling, I thought people considered the whole point of these events to be a social time for both parents and kids. And not everyone seemed to consider smart phones to be a vital part of a family budget.  What happened? 

Over the past few years, homeschool groups and message boards have been steadily abandoning the awful Yahoo platform and moving largely to Facebook.  After all, lots of people are already on Facebook, so it's easy to see how this would seemingly simplify your life.  I've started using Facebook out of necessity, and I've noticed that Facebook makes me lonely.  It occurred to me, ironically, that I might not be alone in contemplating this, and discovered that research has been done on this very topic.  It seems that FB tends to depress people who use it as passive readers, seeing pictures of the best moments of other people's lives in their news feeds while they sit in front of a screen, and having tangibly less to show for their free time. FB tends to make people happy if they post a lot and get some validation from the response, and most of all if they mainly use FB as a tool to arrange face to face time with real friends and family.

There is a particular FB group I joined which has over 8,000 members.  With alarming frequency, people post asking for advice from total strangers that clearly ought to be given to them by trusted confidants or reputable experts.  Scrolling through the posts, it doesn't take long to read about strangers whose spouses are cheating, who want legal advice in custody battles, or want you to look at a picture of their child's medical condition and offer a diagnosis.  It's just not uncommon for FB to be used as a substitute for telling someone who cares and can help. This is not a positive use of this technology.  Facebook's job is to get us on Facebook more often, because that's how they make their $$.  We look at all that advertising, and we supply them with consumer data that they can sell.  But do we want to spend more time on Facebook?

I'm sure most parents, and homeschoolers especially, know very well how amazing screen time can be as a learning tool.  You can explore a vast variety of topics through websites and documentaries, and videos can make otherwise dry topics exciting and far more accessible to younger kids.  It's hard to imagine how we would have pieced together an astronomy unit, for example, without access to cutting edge documentaries we've borrowed from our library. They are often shot with superior graphics and imagery.  Yet experiences like seeing Saturn and its rings clearly through a small telescope at an OMSI Star Party, looking through the giant telescope at the Haggart Observatory and seeing a distant nebula, going outside in the middle of the night to see a lunar eclipse, meeting astronauts in person at public talks and hearing them describe what it's like to be in space and do experiments in the International Space Station, and seeing the huge meteorite collection at the Rice NW Museum of Rocks and Minerals where you get to touch one- something that came from space!- are experiences my son will remember far longer.  Using technology to find such resources is really positive.  But I'm convinced that too much screen time comes at the expense of our relationships with real friends and family and with the community and natural world around us.  All of us must find the right balance. It's there somewhere!

Oh...and if we see each other when we're out and about, let's put our phones down and say hello, shall we?

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