Last week, I retreated to a favourite greasy spoon for a meal, ready to relax and enjoy some comfort food on a cold, winter day. A two-year-old in the booth in front of me was captivated by my presence, and we spent an enjoyable time staring at one another. Junior tired soon of this activity, though, and moved on to other more focused tasks, like playing with his food. I was still waiting for my food (which meant I couldn’t play with it), and it wasn’t long before the hot turkey sandwich, with a vat of gravy on the side (to make sure the mashed potatoes are well lubricated), arrived. It was a welcome sight.
As I indulged, I noticed absolutely no conversation being conducted in the booth in front of me—Mom and Dad were tending to their Smartphones, and Junior was playing with his food. After a while, Mom dug into her extra-large plate of French fries with goo on top, and passed her Smartphone to Junior, who was tiring of playing with his food and did not really want to kick start a new round of staring at me. I was surprised at how eagerly Junior took up the Smartphone and how engaged he was with it. I suspect that Mom set it up for play—it certainly commanded Junior’s attention. With Dad still focused on his Smartphone and Mom catching up on her dinner, there was still no social interaction at the table. After a few minutes, Junior decided that he didn’t want the Smartphone but would opt, instead, for some of Mom’s extra-large order of goo (I was relieved he wasn’t coveting my hot turkey sandwich). Mom wasn’t sharing, which made Junior a fair bit cranky. He was disinclined to follow Mom’s very clear instructions: “Play with Mommy’s phone!” As a temper tantrum erupted, Junior decided to shed ownership of Mom’s Smartphone and lobbed it behind him. The device bounced off the top of my head and landed on the outside edge of my now somewhat depleted vat of gravy. Mom and Dad were instantly by my side, expressing their concern—Mom’s Smartphone had gravy on it and its operation might be impaired. My sore head and the artistic gravy splatter across my newly laundered shirt generated no alarm. Junior was appropriately upbraided for his behaviour—he had, after all, managed to dunk Mom’s Smartphone in gravy. I finished up, paid my bill and waved goodbye to Junior, who had now graduated to Dad’s Smartphone. There was still no conversation—clearly, technology ruled.
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When Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message,” he meant that the “message” of the medium is its influence on the form of society (McLuhan 1964). McLuhan saw electronic media as an extension of people’s central nervous system. As such, electronic media are a key step forward in the technological simulation of human consciousness. It’s not the content of the medium that matters; it’s the medium itself. While television might deliver the day’s news, the real social influence is based on the reordering of the communicative and technological world around us. Our lives are lived in a different way; where we sit, how we communicate and when we engage with others changes in the face of TV. The same is true with a Smartphone—it reorders the communicative and technological world around us. For Junior and his parents, the impact of the Smartphone is not limited to the technological wonders it produces. It also includes reduced social engagement and enhanced relationship with an object.
Of course, childhood today offers many advantages. New media also offer many advantages. However, we also know that children need to engage with one another, they need to develop their social skills and they need to play. They need to be children. All the trend lines show that the opposite is happening—the amount of time kids spend in front of screens is increasing, as is reliance on technology. At the same time, the amount of actual social interaction is decreasing.
Though it remains important for teachers to embrace the good aspects of technological advancement, they must also help students embrace social interaction and collegial engagement. These are the fundamental elements of being human, for past, present and future generations.
McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.