Recently, investors who own roughly $2 billion in Apple stock wrote an open letter to the corporation expressing concern that iPhones and tablet computers were harming the minds of children. Studies cited in the letter detailed a startling drop in students’ ability to focus on educational tasks.
One study found that “67% of the over 2,300 teachers surveyed observed that the number of students who are negatively distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing and 75% say students’ ability to focus on educational tasks has decreased.”
This is not the first alarm to sound over children’s use of tablets and iPhones. The Wall Street Journal and Atlantic Monthly this year profiled the striking addictiveness of iPhones and iPads and linked their use to a precipitous drop in users’ ability to concentrate. In 2013, Time magazine reported an “epidemic” of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which had surged 50% above the previous decade to 6 million diagnosed children. It noted ominously: “The rise in ADHD has coincided with the rise of mobile devices.”
Correlation alone cannot establish causation; it will take some time for the science to settle. These devices are still new. Our little lab rats likely have at least another decade to scorch their retinas and sizzle their minds before researchers are prepared to issue conclusive findings connecting the use of tablets and iPhones to the attention crisis in our young. Until then, permit me a question: What in God’s name are these devices doing in our schools?
I’ve been nervous about these devices for years and haven’t permitted my kids to use them. I operated on a simple theory: Anything that absorbs children completely and causes them to wail like junkies for a crack pipe when it is pried from their hands just can’t be good for them. So, my husband and I endured awkward conversations with relatives who begged to FaceTime with our kids, and the insistence of other parents that many apps were “educational.” We toted activity books and DVD players along on flights with movies we’d chosen.
When our boys were ready to enter preschool, we toured many yeshiva schools only to find that the children whose attention spans we’d fought to preserve would be handed computer tablets by their teachers. Why?
I’ve never gotten a clear answer to this, and believe me, I’ve asked. An educator at one school said that children need to learn to use iPads to “keep step with a changing world.” A lousy rationale if ever there was one. Anyone who has witnessed the miraculous feat of a developmentally disabled child or toddler successfully manipulating an iPad knows how easy these devices are to use; that is their genius.
I’ve heard a teacher boast that an in-class curriculum app enables him “to monitor students’ work in real time.” While I’m puzzled by the reluctance to check on children’s progress face to face, I’m wholly befuddled by “making-a-teacher’s-life-easier” as a rationale for any significant curriculum change, particularly one that further adheres children to screens.
So, why is this a Jewish problem? Why not just an American one? Because Jews should know better.
Perhaps Jews’ greatest achievement on the world-historical stage resides in our ability to educate our children. Without the benefit of a single iPad, the classroom has served as a unique laboratory of quirky Jewish exceptionalism.
One might think this would give us the confidence to ignore the sultry flash of glowing glass. Instead, we hunger for it. Our day schools are rapidly replacing textbooks with iPads, classroom lectures with apps. Kids swipe and tap through class while a teacher monitors like a researcher observing a line of robots. All before gaining solid proof that these technologies will help — or even proof that they won’t hurt — our children’s ability to learn.
I’m not suggesting a Mosaic smashing of tablets, not really. All I’m suggesting is: wait. A great experiment is being conducted across America on its young, for better or worse. Why not see how it pans out before committing our children to the result?
Abigail Shrier is a writer and graduate of Yale Law School living in Los Angeles.