Originally published in the July 2019 Family Issue of Local Profile
My Kindergarten classroom was outfitted with seven blocky, beige computers. They were stationed in a row at the back of our classroom, and they were the first thing I noticed on “Meet the Teacher” day. I loved them. I was starry-eyed over the math and spelling games that we got to play on the pixelated screens. They made classwork into a game. They made it fun.
I hadn’t thought about those simple computers again until recently. I had a three year old and five year old cousin visit from up north, and talking with them shocked me into realization about how much technology has developed since I was a kid. Granted, I’m only 18. It hasn’t been long. However, while at five I clutched a stuffed dog, my five-year-old cousin, Aparna, does the same with her iPad—its name is “ipey”, pronounced “I pee”. While my Kindergarten classroom had seven blocky computers, today’s students at my alma mater, Haun Elementary in Plano, each have their own Chromebook. At age ten, kids are learning to design neighborhoods on Sketchup and code robots. There is no denying that the amount of technology available to children has skyrocketed in recent years.
They call us the iGeneration. We’re defined by our access to, skill with, and reliance on technology.
Sometimes I love that I was born at this particular point in history. How cool will it be to tell my grandchildren that I was only six when the first smartphone came out?
However, despite the excitement of technology, there are days I spend hunched over my phone, scrolling through Instagram until one a.m. I can’t stop, and as I scroll more and more, I get more insecure about the fun that everyone is having without me. I know that I should go to sleep, but I can’t make myself. In these moments, I wish I was born in a simpler time.
Growing up with technology is hard. It’s also rewarding. It sparks creativity. It has the potential to connect us with others. It’s anything but simple.
When I walk into Sci-Tech Discovery Center in Frisco, a giant nose mounted up on the wall sneezes at me. My sister and I are curious, so we read the sign mounted next to it. It informs us that normal breathing sucks air into your lungs at four miles per hour, but that a sneeze shoots air out of your nose at a whopping 100 mph.
Sci-Tech is a nonprofit that introduces kids to STEM with interactive technology. They hold camps during school breaks and partner with educators across the state to get students excited about learning.
Kids dart every which way, playing with the drone simulators and the fog machines and the interactive build-your-own solar system exhibit.
Sci-Tech also helps kids build confidence in their ability to use technology. “A couple of months ago, we actually had real drones, so we would set them up on the drone simulator, have them practice with the drone there, and then we would say, ‘Okay, use this knowledge, go into our drone zone and fly a real drone,’” says Rob Gilmore, Manager of Guest Services at Sci-Tech. “We found that in most cases, once they have the practice, they pick it up like it’s nothing. Whereas, if I sit down with one of them right off the bat and say, ‘We’re going to learn how to fly a drone’, they get more intimidated. They’re looking at it and thinking ‘I’m going to crash it’, or ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what button’s for what’, so this [simulation] gives them a good introduction.”
Technology is a huge asset in developing children’s problem-solving skills. Rob tells me about how Sci-Tech provides certain classes that work with Vex robots. Students are given a task and must figure out how to creatively carry it out with their robots. Often these tasks have real-world applications. Rob chuckles to himself while recounting the results that he got when he asked his students to use the robots to stack foam blocks on top of one another.
“We have one kid who created a claw so he could stack them up, but the robot had to actually run backward and then stop really fast in order to pull itself up to a certain degree. There was some ingenuity there. However, it was probably not practical when you’re dealing with a construction site. You probably don’t want to see a bulldozer hauling cement blocks in reverse and then popping a wheelie. Another girl actually created a forklift that could go up and down. They were both able to solve the problem in different ways.”
The Crayola Experience in Plano also provides children with the technology that lets them express their creativity. The amusement park, which opened in March of 2018, is pulsing with energy. Kids can color and design their own clothes, and later see animated models rocking their outfits on the runway on a large screen television. They can name their own crayons (mine was “Very Violet Vaibhavi”). Families can take photos together and turn them into coloring pages. My mother and I colored a three-headed dragon together, and then, at a station called You-Design, brought it to life in 3D animation. I had colored in one of its claws blue instead of grey, and even that small distinction carried over to the screen.
“Creativity is an essential skill. It can be taught, it should be nurtured but most importantly it must be experienced,” the team at Crayola Experience says. “Kids already have a knack for creativity, but with technology you can give them a whole new set of tools to express themselves. Technology helps kids see how their ideas can take form. It’s empowering for kids to see their creation become ‘real’ in a different way.” Technology is a way to visualize our dreams becoming reality.
Technology can be just as helpful for children when utilized on a day-to-day basis. “When I started at Haun [Elementary] back in 1998, we thought it was awesome that we had seven computers in the classroom plus a teacher computer, and now we’re all one to one,” Louann Dunkle, a fourth grade educator at Haun, says. According to her, daily computer usage teaches the kids important skills.
In Ms. Dunkle’s classroom, the children don’t have specific “computer time.” Instead, what they use their computers for depends on the day. They do a lot of work on G Suite, Google’s collection of cloud-based software that allows them to collaborate with other students in real time. “I think the fact that they can work collaboratively as a group, that they can have one document and all contribute to it, is really important.” Even when students are completing individual work, having access to a computer full-time gives them the possibility of “a world at their fingertips”, making research a cinch. In addition, learning tools such as the trivia game “Kahoot”—ever popular amongst students—greatly increases student engagement.
Technology offers many benefits. I attend a technology-based school, and my own access to cameras, green screens, and programs such as Sketchup and Final Cut Pro makes learning exciting.
However, growing up with technology comes at a price.
When asked about her daily experiences with technology, Annisa Salsabila, a recent graduate from Plano West Senior High School, brings up social media. She grew up in Indonesia and moved to Plano when she was in fifth grade. After transferring to a new school in seventh grade, her friends told her to make an Instagram so that more people could get to know her. “I got an Instagram, but I didn’t post anything for the longest time,” she says. “Then I started actually trying to make my feed look good, to make my captions cute. I got more obsessed with it.”
Social media obsession creeps up on us. “Whenever I’m doing something and I have one or two seconds of spare time, I always pick up my phone and check my notifications. Sometimes I don’t realize how much time I’m actually spending on social media. It’s unhealthy but you can’t get out. It’s actually scary. Sometimes you open Instagram at 10 a.m., and then you check the time [what seems like minutes later], and it’s 12.”
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While studying for an AP US History exam, Annisa ended up on a Wikipedia page and couldn’t stop following the links at the bottom. “It goes on forever,” she says with an uncomfortable laugh. Sometimes the content you can’t stop chasing is actually educational, like when Annisa was studying US History. However, often it’s just bizarre and an easy way for stressed out teenagers to check out from the real world. For example, once I got stuck on a website that was just faces from The Office. You type in an emotion, and the website feeds you clips of characters exhibiting it. Annisa often gets stuck on piano tutorials at wee hours of the night. “I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’, but I never know the answer. It’s 1 a.m., and I’m tired, yet I’m still here.” Often, the content we’re consuming is not high quality. Rather, the internet provides us with plenty of low-quality entertainment to numb us from real life.
Psychologist Adam Alter spent five years researching why exactly we can’t put away our screens. In his famous TED Talk, he states the following: “One of the reasons we spend so much time [on apps] that make us unhappy is that they rob us of stopping cues. Stopping cues were everywhere in the 20th century. They were baked into everything we did. A stopping cue is basically a signal that it’s time to move on, to do something new, to do something different. And —think about newspapers; eventually you get to the end, you fold the newspaper away, you put it aside. But the way we consume media today is such that there are no stopping cues. The news feed just rolls on, and everything’s bottomless.”
With social media, there’s another factor at work: dopamine, otherwise known as the feel-good chemical. We receive dopamine hits when we exercise, eat chocolate and win at Monopoly. The brain also releases dopamine after successful social interactions: when we see others laugh or when we are positively greeted by our peers. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are more likely to survive if we aren’t alone. However social media produces the same response. After receiving a like or a positive comment on a post, dopamine is released, and we are tricked into scrolling for hours, seeking another hit of short-term happiness. Our technology is evolving faster than our biology. The human brain still can’t differentiate between a true evolutionary benefit such as positive recognition at work and a cheap parlor trick like social media. As a result, we get caught in the social media loop.
Not only is social media and the internet time consuming, it also makes for a generation that struggles to communicate. “Growing up, everything I had to say, I would say face to face. Now, I’m texting someone, and the message often gets lost in translation. You can’t read their emotions, so you might misunderstand what they’re trying to say. Back then, everything was so straightforward.”
I will admit that there are some people who I am only comfortable texting. Growing up with social media means that when you make time to hang out with friends, they often spend more time looking at their phones than at you. “I’ve actually been in that situation a few times, and it’s quite awkward,” Annisa says. “We’re sitting in the same room. Why aren’t we communicating? We can save this for later. It’s even weirder when they’re ignoring you in person, but they’re texting you. And you’re sitting right next to each other.”
Making the Most of Technology
The negative aspects of technology tend to emerge when technology time
is unstructured. Structure provides us with stopping cues on platforms like the internet, where stopping cues are few and far between. Sci-Tech provides structure for their students with class schedules and specific tasks that students are instructed to solve with their technology. For example, stacking foam blocks with a Vex robot. Elementary schools like Haun Elementary provide their students with structure as well. “I generally tend to give them a list of websites that have been approved and that I know will have the information they need to answer the questions,” Ms. Dunkle says. This can reduce a lot of frustration.
Annisa Salsabila schedules 30 minutes after school where she doesn’t allow herself to get on social media—a technology detox. Instead, she uses that time to buckle down on homework. If she didn’t have this rule in place, she would get stuck on social media before completing any homework, which can be detrimental for her self-esteem. I like to take long walks without my phone. The combination of exercise, separation from technology and nature is soothing.
The key seems to be simple: purpose. Purpose makes it meaningful for kids to color in their own fashion designs and see them projected on a screen. Purpose is what turns playing with drone simulators into a learning experience. When we use technology for a purpose, it becomes a tool, instead of a black hole that keeps us on “theofficestaremachine.com” past midnight.
Social media, when used in a positive way, is a wonderful tool that connects us with others. Just ask the girls from “abiteofplano”, the Foodstagram, food blog on Instagram, that has garnered over 1,000 followers. Annie Lu and Karen Yang are best friends and seniors at Plano Senior High School. They spontaneously started their blog two years ago to document their favorite eateries and spend more time together. However over the last two years, abiteofplano has connected them to a whole community. “It started off with telling our friends ‘Hey, we have an Instagram account. Go follow us,’” Annie says. “But when you turn your profile into something that’s relatable to everyone, people of all ages and all professions start becoming interested.” They also use their platform to help out small business owners who may not know how to reach out themselves. “Food is something that brings everyone together.”
Nasrah Salim is the founder of Salim Creations, a business where she sells Islamic-inspired art, including woven bracelets and Arabic calligraphy, as well as corsages and decorated graduation caps. She’s a student at Richland College in Dallas, and she uses Instagram and Snapchat to reach out to potential customers, forging more meaningful connections with individuals that she may already know in person. “People I know from school will see my art on my Snapchat story and say something like ‘Hey, I really like your art’, or recently ‘Hey, I’m looking for a Mother’s Day gift.’” Social media also helps her make a name for herself in the larger art world. “I posted about my beach pour painting on my personal Twitter. Later, at art shows, there were people who came up, and they asked me what my name was on Twitter because they had seen my art there. They just saw it in passing while scrolling because that piece had gotten a lot of attention on Twitter. How neat, right?”
For Nasrah, social media helps her art do what art does best: opens your eyes to different perspectives. “Art directs people to learn more,” she says. “It prompts you to say ‘I wonder where this came from’ or ‘I wonder what this means’. It sparks curiosity. This last art show that I went to was actually an interfaith event, [and plenty of people from other religions were interested in my art]. Because it was Easter weekend, a lot of people stopped by in their Easter clothes and bought my art.”
Growing up with social media means that most teenagers know how to use it intuitively. We have a leg up in an increasingly technology-driven world. “For me personally, I love Instagram for personal use,” Annie says. “I’ve always been into taking the cutest photos and interacting with people online. Going into the workforce in the future, I think being tech-savvy is really going to help us.”
When I was in Kindergarten, I read about the invention of something called the “iPhone” in my yearbook. It seemed interesting enough, but I brushed it off. It didn’t seem like it would ever affect my life. I was learning addition and subtraction on a blocky tan computer with the help of virtual dancing monkeys. However in sixth grade, my own classmates started receiving smartphones for their birthdays. Anyone who was someone had an Instagram and a Twitter. By ninth grade, I had to accept that as much as I loved my archaic phone with its sliding keyboard, I would need a smartphone to communicate with my group mates at my project-based school. My high school is largely-technology based. We are each given PISD-issued Chromebooks at the beginning of the year, which we use for 90 percent of our daily work. For anything extensive, we travel down to our Apple Orchard, the affectionate name we have for our Mac lab and use Sketchup to design houses or Final Cut Pro to professionally edit movie trailers.
Advanced technology provides us with the tools we need to express our creativity and it’s the privilege and challenge of the iGeneration to grow up with it. The trick is figuring out how to best use technology, so it doesn’t use us.