Dinner Together

By Andrew King

When Robert D. Putnam penned his renowned essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” 21 years ago, he looked closely at the correlation between the drop in bowling clubs and falling democratic participation. Today, it’s our increasingly connected digital world that is disrupting our social fabric.

Herein lies the research of Phil McRae, Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a professor at the University of Alberta, whose work is focused on tech and its impact on education.

Dr Phil McRae

Dr. Phil McRae, Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and professor at the University of Alberta

During his eye-opening presentation, Growing Up Digital, at the Canadian Forum on Public Education in Montreal, Dr. McRae revealed how the 24/7 reality of smartphones and tablets is having a profound effect on our health, and children set to suffer the most.

“We have to take a long-term look at tech and children, both positive and negative,” said McRae, who revealed how being permanently online is taking a toll on our health and general wellbeing.

In presenting the pros and cons of what is today’s connected reality, McRae used what could be considered the staple of family life, dinner together, to make his point: that our need to be online is robbing adults and their children of real, human connection. Research shows that 73 percent of parents use their online devices during dinner, a moment needed for sharing and communication.

“Neglect is now a bigger issue than abuse in North America,” said McRae, who stresses that we as a society need to learn how to balance technology in our daily lives, and that includes schools. We “must make tech a fabric in the classroom,” but it cannot replace social interaction.

Look no further than the playground, where parents are using up to 30 percent of children’s playground time looking at screen devices. Talk about a distracted generation.

Addicted to tech?

If parents were spending a third of their time at the playground using drugs and alcohol, we would immediately talk about addiction. This isn’t the case with tech.

According to McRae, doctors are reluctant to label excessive tech use as addiction because they worry it would create stigma and it would be very expensive to treat. If medical treatment isn’t the path to wellness, then what do we do? A call to “bring back boredom” is one of McRae’s ideas.

“One of the things that leads to creativity is boredom,” he said, adding that “creativity, motor skills and emotional empathy” are crucial to development. But tech must play a role. McRae says that more research is needed to know exactly how much time spent on phones and tablets can be considered advantageous, and at what age device use should begin.

The best advice he offered to close his presentation was to be balanced; be mindful; and be present. Good advice to a packed room tweeting every word.

(Andrew King is the Media and Communications Coordinator at Education International)

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