Like many parents, Amy Mullins has fought the battle of limiting her children’s screen time.
“I have some children that self-regulate really well, and some who do not who would get sucked in for eight hours without even batting eye,” she said.
It was hard to place limits on technology in her own home, let alone monitor what her children were doing with technology in the classroom.
Google products like Chromebooks and Google Classroom are commonly used in schools, as are the use of phone apps and the digitalization of learning materials. But it’s not just the use of the technology that’s concerning to parents. They also have worries around if the use of tech in the classroom is creating an addiction or dependency to screens and what is being done to protect the data apps that schools collect on their students.
When she has tried to opt her students out of using technology in the classroom, she said she has faced resistance from both the school and society from people who don’t understand why she’s resistant, or make automatic assumptions about who she is.
“I needed to, as a parent, to be able to opt out of that and not be labeled Amish or afraid of technology,” Mullins said.
Mom vs. the screen
The Mullins family decided they didn’t want their children to have cellphones until they reached the age of 14. But before that deadline hit, Mullins started receiving emails stating her child needed to bring a device to school. One was offered at the school for her son to use, but Mullins said he felt singled out because he was the only one without a cellphone.
The reason for the cellphone? A quiz game the class was using.
She found other instances concerning. Her second-grade son sent her an email from a school account she didn’t know he had and that she was able to use to set up a Facebook account with as a test for what the email address could do. An email she received from a different son’s teacher warned parents that students would be learning about networking and routers and that her son might figure out how to adjust settings on their home routers.
Mullins, a former elementary school teacher and current speech-language pathologist who lives in Highland, has a background in neurocognitive development. She has seen negative impacts of technology in her clinic, including an uptick in language delays in children.
She isn’t against technology. Her family uses it, and she’s seen the benefits of sound amplification systems in classrooms, has watched clients who struggle with handwriting be able to write essays using word processors and seen benefits of educational programs like Google Earth.
But she’s also seen her children struggle with learning certain skills, like editing, on a screen, and her son’s hatred for reading digital books.
Making sure her children stay on task is also difficult when they can quickly flip between windows.
“One minute they’re working on an English paper, and the next minute they’re watching a video of some sort,” Mullins said.
They’ve chosen not to purchase a laptop for each of their three children, which can make homework time hectic.
“It’s like an assembly line trying to get them through for homework, and I really worry about families that have six children and aren’t affluent,” Mullins said.
And even though she can opt out, she said she’s faced resistance when trying to do so.
“It’s really hard as a parent when you go in and say ‘I’d like my child to take a paper-and-pencil test, instead,’” Mullins said. “And they look at you like you are either absolutely crazy, or that you’re deliberately being difficult, or you are in the wrong century. There is this lack of understanding that I have legitimate reasons and I should be able to make that call for my child.”
Parents have traditionally been the gatekeepers of information about their children. But with the emergence of websites and apps that track users’ information, the control has mostly been taken out of parents’ hands.
Wendy Hart, a database programmer and member of the Alpine School District Board of Education, has been vocal on the board about her concerns with technology and data privacy.
“Five years ago, when I said things like that no one seemed to know what I was talking about,” Hart said.
Her daughter’s teacher agreed to let her take a pen-and-pencil test instead.
It’s a discussion that has started in Utah within the last few years. Alpine School District adopted a data governance plan last year and last updated it in August.
There’s multiple aspects to the issue — how secure data is from hackers, who has access to the data and if the district should have the data at all.
“I think over time, we don’t know what will happen, but we have to assume that every person who has access to your child’s information may not be the best actor,” Hart said. “At some point, there could be a situation where your child is going to be negatively impacted because someone knows something about them.”
Hart said data about students is a gold mine for researchers, and that data can be extremely revealing about individuals.
“You may know more about them than you know about yourself,” she said.
But while districts have policies regarding data governance, third-party apps used in classrooms still collect data on students.
Opting out hasn’t been easy. She’s tried having her children not use the internet at school, and then her kids will call to say that means they can’t take a test. Trying to limit what information about her children is available can also mean they won’t be featured in a yearbook or choir program. She wants their information to be available in school materials, but doesn’t want Google to have it.
A statement posted on Alpine School District’s website about technology encourages parents to learn about the risk and benefits of sharing student data.
“In the 21st century, electronic devices and software are often (but not always) used as a tool to facilitate the student experience,” the statement reads. “When used appropriately, technology helps engage students in active learning and creation and accelerates assessment and feedback.”
Teachers follow procedures to verify an app is approved by the district or get approval from the district to use an app that requires student data, according to David Stephenson, a spokesman for the Alpine School District.
He said the district’s approach to technology is that it should be used as a tool. The district is also focusing on professional development for teachers to help them learn how to purposefully use tech.
“Alpine School District respects the right of parents to opt their students out of anything they request,” Stephenson said. “We appreciate the collaboration parents and teachers have in providing the best education for all students. As much as possible, teachers may work to provide alternative learning opportunities. However, we encourage parents and students to take advantage of 21st century learning opportunities in order to learn skills that may be required for their future success in our ever-changing technological world.”
Tech with a purpose
Hart got a computer program to help her children learn math when they were young. But once she pulled out flashcards, she discovered that what they’d learned on the computer wasn’t carrying over. She initially dismissed it as just being something that was happening with her kids, and then learned other families were having a similar experience.
Hart, who grew up in Silicon Valley and still has friends there, started discovering that a lot of the people resisting tech in schools worked in the field.
“All the Silicon Valley people, there are a lot of them that are saying I’m not doing it for my kids,” Hart said.
It’s not a new trend. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was public about not allowing his children to use an iPad, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates has spoken about limiting his daughter’s screen time.
“I find it interesting that parents who have the most concern about technology, by and large in my experience, are parents who know more about technology and not less, and we are being branded as technophobes, and we don’t like technology, and you can imagine the old VCR with the light flashing the wrong time,” Hart said. “That’s how we’re being portrayed and that’s not true.”
Hart said often using technology for learning becomes more about how to use the tech than about the curriculum and that tech is often used simply because it’s seen as cool. If tech is used, she wants it to be both beneficial and safe.
Tech can get between the student-teacher relationship, she said, eliminating that dialogue.
“When you are dealing with a computer program, you can’t have a conversation with that computer program,” she said.
She’d rather see funds that go toward technology be used elsewhere.
“When we put money into technology, that is money we aren’t putting into teachers,” Hart said.
It only took a few weeks for Kristin Eberting’s children to get attached to their cellphones.
Eberting, who recently moved to Morgan from Alpine, has also seen attention problems when her children use their online textbooks.
“As a parent, you can’t just say ‘do your homework’ anymore,” Eberting said. “You have to be right there to make sure they are on task.”
Instead of doing homework, she’d find her kids playing games on the computer. Or, they’d be doing their work, only to get distracted by notifications.
“I think the temptation is always there because it’s the internet,” she said. “The possibilities are endless on it.”
She’s also found she’s had to search the internet for an answer to her children’s questions instead of being able to reference a physical textbook.
She’s not anti-tech. Her husband sold computers, but she also has problems with aspects of technology in school, like Wi-Fi being available and teachers who have to worry about students being distracted by technology in class.
Even if one student isn’t using tech, she said they can be distracted by another student who is.
“We aren’t learning anymore,” Eberting said. “We are totally distracted by it.”
Digital textbooks make the assumption every student has computer access, Eberting said, but she also wonders about the link between handwriting something and memory versus typing it out.
She’s also against teaching topics like coding to children in elementary school.
“There is a time and a place, and that young is too young,” Eberting said.
Alexander Hume, an Alpine parent, agrees. He sees elementary school as a place where students learn the basics, and junior high and high school as a place to build off of that knowledge.
“I don’t think in elementary school they should be flooding them with all of these things,” Hume said.
He’s a big fan of technology. His wife runs a tech company, he works for Zions Bancorporation and has a focus on utilizing technology and automating things in finance.
But he also worries about what using tech is doing to children.
“We are creating addictions, distractions, dependencies, and they are missing out on a sensory learning experience,” Hume said.
His children have limited access to tech at home and he uses a program to enact parental controls. Hume said his teenage son has said their home parental control program is more restrictive than the program used at his school.
He worries that increased time on smartphones mean that children are missing out on social interactions and that children are so used to fast technology that they don’t understand that sometimes life will be slow.
He wants technology to be a tool, but also wants students to be able to function without it.
“People have to be able to do it and not get sucked into it, and it can’t create a dependency,” Hume said. “If you can’t sit and write things out, or work a problem on paper, then this isn’t working.”