I'm reading this post over a cup of coffee at Panera Bread, and just a few minutes ago I overheard a conversation involving a young couple eating breakfast with their boy, who was playing games on a tablet, and a lady sitting next to them: "We bought him this when he was five. He's seven now, and it's his most prized possession!" I cringed a little bit, thinking about how Steve Jobs apparently did not allow his own children to use the very iPads that he designed.
There's so much to say about technology...I'm just going to throw out a few semi-related thoughts on how I have tried to work through these issues:
There's debate over what exactly "classical" education is. However one defines it, one of its chief (and best) characteristics is that there is, at its heart, an instinct to resist modern educational fads, most of which revolve around overblown promises about technology.
Right now we're in the midst of a crisis over contemporary technology. Many generations have gone through similar crises. Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology before the age of the internet, but they are as relevant today as ever. For a fun take on how people dealt with the technological developments of the past, see William Powers's book Hamlet's Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. I'm in the midst of studying the Industrial Revolution with my history students...now there is a period in which it took a long time for people to work through how to use technology in way that produced human flourishing rather than suffering.
One of the best thinkers out there right now, in my opinion, is Cal Newport. He has a great blog you can subscribe to, and a book coming out next month called Digital Minimalism (his book Deep Work is also great). He has so many good ideas I'm not even going to try to summarize any of them here.
Some evenings I spend more time than I should on my phone browsing through Facebook or news sites when I feel like I should be reading books. I realized recently that this is partly because I have a pretty noisy house (four kids, aged 2-11); when I'm not directly interacting with them, trying to read a book that takes real concentration is pretty difficult, and I get irritated at being interrupted. If I'm doing something not so important (being on my phone), I don't mind all the interruptions. So my being on my phone may be, psychologically, a logical response to the situation. I don't know if this is good or bad, but it sparks the thought that when we're thinking about wanting our kids to spend time in activities that require concentration, how do we best create a home environment in which that is possible? (Having the TV on a lot isn't going to help.)
As a teacher, I find myself thinking quite a bit about my use of screens in class. If I'm giving a lecture, should I have a slideshow with lots of visuals, since that will help keep the students' attention? Or is this merely reinforcing their dependence upon screens? There must be a good balance here.
From my own informal observations, having taught high school for over a decade, my students today seem to be simultaneously 1) more dependent upon their phones, and 2) more aware of their phones' dangers, and less likely to be wrapped up in the novelty of having one. Ten years ago, a student sneaking his phone out was probably having fun playing Angry Birds; today, he is probably keeping up with an ongoing group chat with his friends that feels (but actually isn't) very important. This year I have two students who chose to write their senior theses on the dangers of technology for young people. I think that's a good sign. (On the other hand, I hear Literature teachers questioning whether students are able to read as much or as deeply as they could before smartphones.)
When I was a kid, from an early age, my dad frequently took me to the shooting range and taught me how to handle and safely use firearms. A gun is a powerful piece of technology, but growing up being trained to use one safely is, I think, better than simply avoiding them altogether if someone is going to be able to use them responsibly as an adult. (Europeans might make the same argument about consuming alcohol...but that's another story.) Maybe this is a good way to think about technology with our kids. My own kids have the privilege of spending time on screens on a regular basis, but my always insisting on specific limits to how much they can watch shows or play video games, they're being trained in the habit of having to be aware of how much they are doing--a skill they wouldn't develop if we banned screens altogether.