Education Technology and Mental & Physical Health Disorders

The relationship between internet usage and learning through a computer or mobile device is elementary. While there may be differentiation in the assignments or tasks undertaken (personal as opposed to specialized) the media interface is identical. For example, researching for a project or reading through an online Publisher’s book-like interface, or playing a video game, or updating Facebook, or social networking, or using a movie making application, or a language or mathematics based application for school or college courses all involve similar cognitive processes which utilize our working memory, reasoning and creative brain functions. They also involve similar interactive relationships between a human being and a machine, no matter what type of branding and packaging of the machine be it an iPad, a Samsung galaxy, a Microsoft or Lenovo tablet, or any other of the myriad hand-held mobile devices on the market today. So to distinguish between an internet addiction and an addiction to a mobile device is useful only insofar as it delineates the purpose not the interface used for that purpose.  Spending 6-8 hours online at school or college or playing games or chatting or surfing the net watching YouTube clips or using a computer or mobile device to study or complete research for an assignment all carry the same psychological and physical health risks.

We know very little about the long term psychological and physical effects contemporary technology has on people in general and youth in particular except that some of the early studies are indicating that fundamental changes in social behaviour and mental and physical health after extended periods of time using technology are deleterious to human physical well-being, human social relationships and the human character.

For example, there’s evidence to suggest people behave more rudely and aggressively online. Psychologists call this the disinhibition effect-I call it bad-mannered, belligerent, antagonistic and outright cruel and rude anti-social behaviour. It is argued people feel less inhibited when not seen and feel they can express themselves more freely and without feeling vulnerable to criticism. But the results of this kind of reasoning put into practice can have devastating and tragic consequences.  Recently, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after being bullied at school for months by a group of her peers who tormented her with names and threats of violence. Seventh grader Rachel Ehmke killed herself after what her parents said were months of abuse at her Kasson, Minnesota middle school. Several days before she took her life, an anonymous text message was sent out to other students at the school calling her a ‘slut’ who needed to be forced out of the school. (Thompson, 2012). In another tragic case, a young Indian student committed suicide by hanging herself after two boys posted obscene comments about her on Facebook (Jalandhar, 2012). But probably the most cruel and sadistic example of online anonymity and the disinhibition effect is the tragic and untimely death of 13 year old Megan Meier. Megan began receiving nasty messages from a boy a few weeks after she met him, via her MySpace account. After many messages of kindness and support she received one telling her the ‘world would be a better place without you’. Megan believed she had been rejected by the boy and committed suicide in her home. However, the boy never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, a 47 year old married woman and a mother herself, who lived four houses down the street.

But it is not only social networking and the improper use of mobile devices which are having such a deleterious effect on our social relationships and our innate capacity for civility, compassion and kindness. The formal use of technology in education is undermining teaching and learning processes and the quest for knowledge. I mark hundreds of essays written by high school seniors every year for an international examining body, and I’ve noticed an exponential increase in the copying and pasting of information from websites-especially Wikipedia- without any real understanding of content. Moreover, I’ve also noted a reduced capacity for critical thinking and in-depth analysis from graduating high school seniors across the world.

Whereas teachers were once the bridge between the curriculum and the student, facilitating the teaching and learning processes, now technology is usurping that role, and the once strong, stable pillars of human reasoning, critical thinking, life-experience, empathy and understanding are being replaced by bridges of aluminium, fibreglass and fairy dust courtesy of Apple inc., Samsung and Microsoft et.al. These mobile devices are simply edutainment platforms for audio-visual media, books, periodicals, movies, music, games, apps and web content. They are being peddled and publicized by a marketing team of corporate moguls and educators with vested interests and embraced by educators caught up in the youthful but naive claim that teaching and learning methodology and content is outdated and needs to be realistic (whatever that means) and catch up to the 21st century.

There’s been no conclusive research which suggests that any mobile learning device is going to enhance and transform the learning success of school and college students. What we do know through research is that the kinds of experiences the iPad, laptop or desk top computers or any other piece of educational technology offers is limited to the innate ability of the user to learn. In other words, you can distribute a mobile learning device or computer to every pre-school, school or college age student in the entire world,  yet this will not make an iota of difference to whether they learn or not. Why? Well leaving aside intrinsic motivation, country, culture, social class and equal educational opportunities, the same cognitive processes are involved in learning whether the instructional tool is a person or a machine. Working memory, the key cognitive bridge between knowledge maintained and knowledge transformed through building on what’s retained, functions under whatever environmental conditions it encounters in the teaching and learning process. However, the caveat is this; cognitive overload a psychological and intellectual state which occurs when too much material of an auditory, visual- spatial or narrative nature is presented, undermines and prevents the uptake of key information and knowledge sequences in the teaching and learning process. And presently the educational technology currently used in pre-schools, schools and colleges without impunity are designed to increase rather than decrease the likelihood of cognitive overload.  Tools and applications which encourage multi-tasking in learning do not always act as facilitators of learning; they simply provide seductive distractions to what is required to be taught, learnt and remembered. Human beings on the other hand, are better placed to avoid this pit-fall, as they understand and have empathy with the learning process-two key human qualities not yet mimicked through technology or IT applications.

The long-term effects of technology use on physical health are only beginning to be understood. Changes in the physiology of the brain have been detected through long-term online interaction; for example microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder suggests that poor goal directed behaviors along with impaired working memory are the direct result of prolonged long-term exposure to a computer or mobile learning device. (Yuan, et al., 2011) While the destructive and negative effects spawned through technology induced social behavior are now self-evident. The international mental health encyclopaedia known as the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-IV) will include Internet-use disorder as a condition “recommended for further study” in its forthcoming May 2013 edition. The educational sector would be well advised to take heed of this, and to monitor its implementation of educational technology and the effects it has on the impressionable, vulnerable minds and bodies of those in its pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities. It is one thing to be swept up in the hype and technophoria of the moment; and quite another to be held accountable for the long term psychological and corporeal effects and consequences that mobile and computer based learning is having on the physical and mental well-being of present and future generations of learners.

References

Jalandhar. (2012, August 16th). Student hangs herself over obscene Facebook comments. Retrieved October 13th, 2012, from Deccan Herald: http://www.deccanherald.com/

Thompson, P. (2012, October 13th). Girl, 13, hangs herself after months of torment at hands of girls who scrawled ‘slut’ on her school locker and warned her to leave. Retrieved October 13th, 2012, from Mail Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/index.html

Yuan, K., Qin, W., Wang, G., Zeng, F., Zhao, L., Yang, X., et al. (2011). Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder. PLOS , 1-21.

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