Digital Media and the Decline of Thinking

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn…” C.S. Lewis–Mere Christianity

We operate under an assumption that all progress is only good, especially technological progress. Progress brought us nuclear power, but along with nuclear power, we gave ourselves the ability to annihilate the human race in minutes. We are capable of inventing destructive technology.

We appear to have done this with the television and the cell phone. Just as nuclear physics gives us light for our homes and nuclear warheads, so the digital revolution has given us both helpful and destructive powers.

I just finished reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, erstwhile Chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. The late author, writing thirty years ago, documents the affect of the digital revolution on childhood. He notes that, “…pictures and other graphic images may be said to be ‘cognitively regressive’, at least in contrast to the printed word.” What he means here is that a picture oriented or saturated world prevents the development of the mind necessary for a child to become an adult who can work with concepts and abstractions.

Julie Taylor, our (my school’s) speech language pathologist with USD 305, remarks that with increased technology use in the home she has seen an increase in negative behaviors and a decrease in proper speech development as children spend less and less time in conversation with their families and friends.

Indeed, we have been witnessing the results in our election cycles. Postman writes, “the mass-produced image has introduced a constant and pervasive element of irrationalism into both politics and commerce. …a candidate’s image has become more important than his plans, a product’s ‘image’ more important than its usefulness. Those old enough to remember will call to mind the importance of make-up in the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

What does this mean for us as Christian parents? God has given us children to steward for His glory. We must control our children’s access to media. What we do with our children and what we allow them to do in their free time teaches them what to love. We need to raise children who know words, can argue (well), can describe pictures with words, and can see behind the “image” of a candidate or a product to reason to truth. The importance of facility with words cannot be underestimated since our world began with the words of God. “In the beginning was the Word…” John tells us. God inspired a book with words, not a picture-book or painting.

This is why we turn Netflix off and tell our children to read or go outside. This is why we teach logic in the middle school and keep cell phones, gaming systems, and other electronics in a central part of the home and out of the bedrooms. The ability to abstract, use words, and argue gave us men and women who produced the constitution, modern science, and the freedom we enjoy in this country. Responsibility (even patriotic duty) means saying, “No” sometimes. This can be costly. There is a trade-off that requires delayed gratification. Your children may not be as far along as their friends in the newest video game or up on the latest episode of the popular television show or vlog. Postman in the epilogue says, “…there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things [controlling technology use], who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are … creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. … Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will … keep alive a humane tradition.” A humane tradition this is certainly what we need to understand, proclaim, and live out God’s word for the sake of our country and our world.

Reading!


20161014_195608Despite my hopes, J did not start reading street signs from his car seat when he was three years old. He had very little interest in academic learning. He loved playing, especially with cars and trucks. He was less interested in crawling into our laps for a book than his sisters were at the same age. We let him play. His formal preschool education consisted of about twenty minutes of school per day beginning at age five. He is what I would consider a normal child. For some reason, in our culture, we hate to call our children normal–it hurts a bit–but he is, and that is okay.¬†J is normal. Last night he started yelling everything he wanted to say. We have to tell him not to wrestle the dog. He spends most of his afternoon on his bicycle. Ultimately, the difference in our children will not be measured by how abnormal they are, but by how well we train and teach them–especially how well we teach them to work hard and obey.

We are in our third month of kindergarten and the only English Language Arts homework we have had has been the less than five minute daily review of phonogram flash cards. (We are up to 23 cards.) The teacher drills them at school, so he needs very few corrections at home. He still struggles distinguishing “d,” “b,” and “p.” He loves doing his phonogram “homework.” He has begun to read.

I set up his school desk in the corner of our dining room. Almost nightly, he writes random letters on sheets of paper. Last night, he heard someone say “gold.” “That starts with a g-j!” he said while writing “g”. He had some trouble figuring the “o” out. I had to elongate my pronunciation so he could pick it up. Then the “l” and finally the “d.” He does not always use the letter names–I do not know if he knows the alphabet yet. Regardless, he spelled out “gold” by pronouncing the word and listening to the sounds.

Here is what is beautiful¬†(Not everything is…my home is proof that we need the Gospel!) about what happens in our house in the evenings. No one makes J sit at his desk. No one makes him write letters. No one makes him memorize his phonograms. No one made him spell “gold.” No one made him underline the “o.” (Our spelling rules require that the “o” is underlined when it says its own name.) He did it because he wanted to.

Here is a list of things we provide or do not provide in our home to create an environment that fosters excitement about learning.

Quiet in our home. There are times in our house when there is no music playing, no TV on, no yelling etc.

A place to play. J has space where he can do his own thing.

A time to play. There are times in our house when no one tells other people what to do. J has time to make his own choices. Over-scheduled children have to be told, “It is time to sit at your desk.” If this is their only experience, it will take the joy and playfulness out of learning. Schedules are for adults, not six-year-old children.

Books. Reading is not homework. It belongs in the life of every civilized person! We read a devotional, a Scripture, and a family read aloud most nights. (Taking time out for reading is not always easy. Sometimes it requires selflessness. It is good for a family to have the experience of choosing to do something that is difficult but valued.) These books have provided the fuel for J’s curiosity. The wonder, the stories, the conflict, and the happy resolution have drawn him to the world of letters and books. We have lots of good books in our home. We listen to audio books. From what he sees and hears, he knows that books bring pleasure.

Structure. J can count on our home being a place of predictability rather than chaos. (Most of the time!) We are at that stage of life when we cannot do whatever we want–we have young children.

Minimal screen time. Confession, we do not own a TV. Regardless, we do not let the computer, a cell phone, or the Kindle compete for J’s time. He does not expect to be handed a “device” in the car, the grocery, or at the line at checkout. He is too young and these things teach distraction while children his age need to be trained to focus. If we let him choose between being entertained or entertaining himself, he would rarely go to his desk to write letters and spell words for fun. He would also become sedentary.

No pressure. Young children (It starts to go away around Grade Three) have a natural interest and joy in learning, pleasing others, and showing what they can do. Good reading programs, families, and schools take advantage of this. Bad education kills these things. J is not on a timeline–no one in his life is worried about him learning to read by December or May. No one’s job is on the line if he does not start reading by Grade One or whatever.

He is my third child. All three have learned to read this way. We have been blessed to be in classical schools (or homeschool) that provide a structured approach to reading with good, solid phonograms programs. Despite what happens in many kindergarten reading classes, there is very little focus on understanding and lots of focus on memorization and practice. It is beautiful. Many children lose any natural curiosity and love they may have had for reading when they are taught to read under pressure. None of my children were reading before kindergarten. (The girls are normal too.) The two olders are now excellent readers.

A lot of what parents hear about early reading is just noise from benighted schools that are trying to prepare for a test at the end of Grade One.

Learning to read is a beautiful thing! It has been a pleasure to watch my children do it and they loved it too! School should not take this away. I am glad mine does not!