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A screen time and education expert: ‘My students don’t understand handwriting’

High school teacher Joe Clement is the co-author of a book that has opened the debate in the United States about childhood ‘overdoses’ on tablets and mobile phones

Joe Clement
Joe Clement, in an image from the Chicago Review Press publishing house.

Joe Clement, 54, has been teaching high school for 30 years. And, about a decade ago, the Virginia-born instructor began to worry about his students’ addiction to technology. As a result of careful analysis, he co-authored Screen Schooled in 2017, alongside fellow veteran teacher Matt Miles. This fueled the public debate about the use of technology in American classrooms, where children dream of having their first phone when they’re nine-years-old, or even younger.

EL PAÍS interviewed Clement — who teaches Economics and Government — within the framework of an educational summit hosted by the Qatar Foundation, in which the teacher addressed the consequences of this “overdose” on cell phones and tablets.

Question. Parents are beginning to debate about their children’s use of mobile phones.

Answer. That’s normal. Technology is an advantage, but it also creates addictions in children.

Q. Do you have a cell phone?

A. Yes, but the difference is that a child’s brain is still developing the ability to make decisions, to think critically, until [they hit their] late-teens and early-20s. We adults grew up without phones and, for us, they’re just an accessory. But if you don’t know anything other than your phone, you make really bad decisions. You spend all day playing video games, watching pornography and browsing social media. So, when you’re a parent, you have to ask yourself: at what age do I think my child is ready for unlimited entertainment?

Q. What’s the appropriate age to give a child a cell phone?

A. My nine-year-old daughter is the only one of her friends who doesn’t have access to a phone or tablet. The later, the better.

Q. In Western Europe, it’s very common to have a phone by the age of 12.

A. That’s still very early. The bad side of phones cannot be ignored. We want to think that our kids are just going to magically use all the good things that come with technology, but that’s not what happens.

Q. When did you start worrying about excessive screen use?

A. A decade ago. I realized that my students didn’t have the ability to think critically… They couldn’t concentrate for a long time, nor could they read in depth. I mentioned this to another teacher and we started talking about technology addiction. [We became] interested in the effect of so much time spent in front of a screen. Our book came out of all of that.

Q. And did your fellow teachers agree with you?

A. No, no. We thought they would say, “Oh, good job” when we wrote it, but no. [Our schools have] spent a lot of money on computers and tablets. People didn’t want to hear about how maybe this wasn’t a very good thing. But the issue got a lot of attention in the media.

Q. In your book, you also claim that technology kills curiosity.

A. Yes. You don’t have to think anymore. “Hey, what is blah blah blah?” You just look it up, right?

Q. In the past, we first consulted the dictionary.

A. Before, when you were looking for a word, you had to sit down and think: “How do I solve this problem?” Now, you can just go back to your video game. Technology kills curiosity. And then, there’s the false narrative that — because there’s so much information — kids are so curious that they’re going to be learning all the time, when that’s not the case at all. If at 12 or 15-years-old I’d been playing with my cell phone, I wouldn’t have gotten to know the great works of literature.

Q. Do your students really have such poor reading comprehension?

A. When you read on your phone all the time, you train your brain to read only two or three sentences. [Afterward], our brain then needs new stimulation. When you try to refocus, you forget where you were and the context. You’re not understanding the full meaning of what you read.

Q. Do you see problems in handwriting?

A. Yes, many. When I return the [graded assignments] to my students, my comments have to be in print-like handwriting, because they don’t know how to read handwriting. And [their handwriting] is often very difficult to read, because they simply never practice. Even though writing is important for content, grammar and spelling.

Q. Do you use computers in your classroom?

A. At our school, every student has a computer. There are times when it makes sense for them to look for something. In an astronomy class, I would want my students to see stars on the computer, but the number of times a screen is the best tool is quite small. If you use chalk all day, it’s boring, but at least it doesn’t harm children. Screens do.

Q. What should parents do?

A. Talk to each other. A cellphone is often given to a kid so that they’re not the only one who doesn’t have it [among their peers]. But if it’s agreed upon that they all don’t get it until they’re 15 or 18-years-old, the kids will interact and play with each other.

You can tell [your children] that they have 45 minutes of screen time, but then, they’ll tell you that they have to do their homework on the computer. Then, when they’re online, they’ll play video games and watch videos. With a printed book, homework takes 20 minutes… Online, [the same amount can take] three hours. The kids get distracted and go from here to there.

Q. But in the United States, where you teach, aren’t students very good at oral expression? Isn’t debate encouraged?

A. That’s definitely decreasing. It’s funny you say that, though, because last week, I had this same conversation with my students. I told them that, three times this year, they’re going to have to speak in public. They don’t want to participate because, you know, they think they’re [communicating with the world on their phone]. But companies look for people who can give a presentation and be convincing; you have to practice.

Q. But in the 21st century, certain technological skills are also needed.

A. In the old days, you would turn on a computer and all you would see was a message and a little blinking cursor. And that was it. There were no photos, so it was quite difficult to use. Now, a child can literally turn on computers and use them. The hard part is thinking, concentrating, problem-solving, which we have to do in the real world.

Q. What do you think about Swedish schools returning to printed books?

A. Not only Sweden: Great Britain and France have banned cell phones in schools. The rest of the world is beginning to wake up and solve the problem, [taking] measures to solve this health crisis. In the United States, we have more and more phones and more and more computers.

Q. Was the mental health crisis worsened by the pandemic?

A. Yes, of course. And, back then, if social media was so good — and if it was so good for kids to have computers [for online learning] — people should be happier now, right? But they’re not. They’re sad. And children are committing suicide; they’re more anxious and depressed than ever. There are now enough studies to show that there’s causality: the more time we spend in front of the screen, the worse off we are psychologically. And that’s why I think some nations are waking up.

Q. A Stanford University study states that only 9% of technological applications have demonstrated their usefulness.

A. That’s how it is. Educational tools are often developed by people who’ve never been in the classroom — they don’t usually consult teachers. Their main goal is to make money. They’re constantly looking for ways to collect data from students and schools to sell, when what needs to be prioritized is what’s actually good for children.

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