Roseway Waldorf school recently hosted well-known child psychologist Tim Barry for a discussion about the effects of technology on children, education, families, and communities. This article is the first in the Roseway Waldorf series on Technology and Growing Minds.

Are computers bad for children?

The real question is: do growing minds have the capacity to make wise choices when it comes to using the bafflingly wide array of options available to them? Take a moment to consider this question honestly.

Even many adults don’t know the difference between what technology is obviously good – and what is subtly, deviously dangerous …

Yet for some reason, we expect our kids to be able to do so.

Seven or eight decades ago, two books – written by visionaries – provide an eerily uncanny perspective on the role of technology … and the potential devastation that could result.

The first is George Orwell’s apocalyptic 1984, which paints a picture of a world with Big Brother watching us all … And 2013’s NSA scandal bears a creepy resemblance to Orwell’s prediction.

As states:

“GEORGE Orwell’s worst nightmare has arguably come true and sales of his dystopian novel 1984 have been soaring in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s startling revelations of secret government surveillance.”

On the other hand, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a bit more subversive. The premise of this book is that we will be destroyed by having all of our needs met by nothing obviously bad, but by frivolous evil … by the things we welcome in through our front doors.

The more cynical among us may say that the technology we welcome into our homes fits that description perfectly. Maybe not. But studies show that exposing young minds to technology is, at best, passively benign. At worst, it is actively harmful.

Technology is not evil.

In fact, every human development is a form of technology: the first time someone beat a papyrus reed into paper, that was technology. The first time someone worked out how to use a stick to apply ink to that paper to convey a message, that was technology.

And even then, as early as the first technology, it’s introduction changed the way people’s minds worked … instead of the strong aural traditions and epic memory capacities our ancestors relied on to sustain society and learning, we began to rely instead on a written record – a growing record.

Technology changes the way we think. It changes the way we learn. It changes the way we remember.

Is that something we want?

Technology has its place. For instance, don’t we all prefer the dentist (or heart surgeon!) with the latest technology available? And the skills to use it, too. But just because technology can be enormously helpful in many applications – and certainly has its place – that doesn’t mean its place should be influencing the hearts and minds of the most vulnerable and open to influence in our society: our children.

But isn’t technology helping children learn?

We’re so glad you asked. There are wild claims being made these days about the benefits of technology for children and their education. However, most of these are not substantiated by science.

David Elkind, in his book Parenting on the Go, talks about so-called gourmet parenting. Speaking of parenting styles, Elkind explains,

“One of these styles was most characteristic of newly affluent parents whom I described as “Gourmet: parents: Many older wealthy families have learned to instill a sense of public service in their offspring. But many newly affluent middle-class parents have not acquired this talent. We are using our children as symbols of leisure-class standing without building in the safeguards against an overweening sense of entitlement – a sense of entitlement that may incline some young people more toward the good life than toward the good life than toward the hard work that, for most of us, makes the good life possible.

That is to say, the outcome of Gourmet parenting was predictable. Children were given the best of everything, without anything being required on their part. As a result, they were less than appreciative of what they were given but got angry if they did not receive what they believed to be their due. They have carried these attitudes with them into adulthood.”

Paved with good intentions

Aside from the bleak outlook Elkind describes for tomorrow’s adults, there’s a more immediate impact of this “gourmet parenting” on today’s children. Private schools are trying to attract a particular demographic of parents: professionals of a certain income level, individuals who have embraced technology as part of their work and their lives. Gourmet parents, in other words. To win their approval – or even get their attention – such schools do all they can to keep pace with developments in technology. Nothing but the newest and shiniest will do.

These schools and the parents who subscribe to them make the mistake of thinking that if the technology is working for the successful, self-made adults, it should work just as well for their kids.

However, the idea that technology is not necessarily the panacea we think we’re looking for is not new. As described in the book (Anti-)Americanisms, a collection of articles presented during the international conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies in 2002 edited by Michael Draxlbauer, Astrid M. Fellner, Thomas Fröschl,

“John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold signaled an age of somber, even squalid tales in which technology is at best absurdly irrelevant and at worst actively harmful.”

Building braincells – technology beyond the classroom

Can computers facilitate brain development? Not so far. In fact, Tim says no empirical studies exist to support this premise.

Educator and media theorist Neil Postman felt so strongly about childhood and the effects of technology on society that he wrote seventeen books on the subject. Two in particular achieved critical acclaim: Technopoly and The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman points out that any new technology colonises any society it enters, and pushes aside the old, existing technology.

He describes the way the introduction of the “technology” of reading pushed aside the pervading use of memory and verbal storytelling.

In this case, though, the invading technology was beneficial: reading helps parts of the brain connect, and makes us more – and differently – intelligent.

On the other hand, computers and modern technology do not have a beneficial effect on how we learn or retain data. As we rely more heavily on online searches, we no longer store as much information. Instead, we tend to store pathways to information. The downside of this trend is that we remember less – and without being plugged into the web, it can be challenging to remember the kinds of facts we would have fifty years ago.

And it makes it very hard to make connections without the data to hand, simmering below the surface, ready to make its relevance to other information obvious to our percolating consciousness.

Another problem is that when new technology pushes aside old technology, we easily subscribe to the false belief that the old technology is useless and irrelevant – or even that the entire world was ill-informed or thoroughly backward before the advent of the new technology.

This simply isn’t true. Technology has indeed come a long way, but only because it builds on what has gone before. This is precisely how humans learn best, and rushing to give our children the pinnacle of technological development before their brains have had the opportunity to make the necessary connections that get them there is irresponsible – even damaging.

Perhaps, in very impoverished communities, computers can provide opportunities that other ways of life do not and cannot. (Just look at the amazing work Sugata Mitra is doing with unschooled youngsters in New Delhi, with his computer in a hole in the wall (watch the TED Talk here).) In a similar vein, fast food is bad for you … but a McDonald’s burger can save you from death if you’re literally starving.

When you’re given the choice, are you discerning?

Roseway Waldorf school advocates keeping young minds free from the effects of technology for as long as possible, to allow their natural growth processes to flourish. To find out more about our research on the subject, call us on 031 768 1424 and we’ll put you in touch with the right person to answer your questions.

Tim Barry practices in Hilton, Pietermaritzburg. He can be contacted on 082 577 7128, or via email at