DOREEN
In our last video we talked about how technology is never a neutral tool. There’s this oft–quoted line from Neil Postman’s excellent if slightly dated book Technopoly that after the printing press was invented you didn’t have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe.

RICHARD
Without the printing press there would have been no Reformation.

DOREEN
And going downstream a few hundred years, likely no Bruderhof.

RICHARD
So if technology is so formative, if it has the power to shape us, our habits, how we relate to one another as adults, how much more is that the case when it comes to children? It’s remarkable how often we take an “adopt first, ask questions later” approach when it comes to new technology and kids.

DOREEN
Speak for yourself. I personally grew up living without technology; that is little to no access to television or computers other than the very occasional movie night. Bruderhof schools are big on doing rather than watching so there’s an emphasis on things like unstructured play, gardening, exercise, handcrafts, and sports in addition to regular academics. There are no computers in Bruderhof school classrooms.

RICHARD
Wasn’t always like that though. I mean we didn’t have television either, but when I was in middle school here on the Bruderhof in the early nineties the school was an enthusiastic early adopter of personal computers. I spent a lot of time playing Oregon Trail or putting our school magazine together in a really early version of Word (lots of clipart). I also remember some epic Prince of Persia competitions in the classrooms.

DOREEN
Ok, by the time I came along all the computers were gone and we were back to doing everything by hand. We published a handwritten magazine called Log Offline (clever), we built a house out of straw bales, and every year we spent twenty-four hours alone in the woods getting in touch with nature - you know, trying to be like John Muir. My guess is all those changes were made when they saw how your class turned out.  

RICHARD
I definitely feel like I missed out on the John Muir experience. My daughter actually did something similar this year and mostly loved it except for being terrified by the nighttime wildlife noises. 

Figuring out how to strike the balance is a tricky business. There are technologies that kids should absolutely be learning about – small engines, electronics, or music editing software – things that require problem solving and creativity. There’s a lot you can learn about the physical world by having to manipulate it. I would even say video gaming to a certain extent and depending on the game can help develop certain skill sets. The distinction I think is whether an activity is passive or active and creative and of course whether there’s balance. 

Seeing kids on smartphones in constant touch with each other makes me reflect on my childhood where there was lots of down time, and learning how to use it was part of growing up. As I was often told when I complained, “Only boring people are bored.”

So while I think limiting children’s use of technology and automation in general is smart, raising kids in a bubble with no access to it at all makes it more likely they’ll have a harder time adjusting when they inevitably have to step out of childhood into adult life, whether that’s university, working within the Bruderhof, or whatever path they take. There are pros and cons of technology for children, just like with us adults. So a certain degree of exposure and familiarity with developing technology is important and also awareness of the wider culture that you get through engaging with these technologies is healthy. 

DOREEN
I agree with that. While Bruderhof kids don’t have unfettered access to computers or digital devices at home or in the elementary and middle school (other than the occasional movie or some relevant educational content) in the Bruderhof high schools the students have opportunities to use the internet in supervised research environments. And the high school is developing a curriculum to teach reliable and safe internet research helping students parse content for trustworthiness. But we don’t give kids personal devices and have no plans to go there. It’s simply not necessary and the negative effects of technology on child development are clear enough, not to mention the potential for exposure to unhealthy and immoral cultural influences. 

RICHARD
The promise of this information technology, personal devices in particular, is that it makes our lives better – more efficient and happier. We’ll “know more” (or at least have access to a ton of information), we’ll connect with more people, we’ll be entertained, we’ll be able to try new recipes. But when I ask myself the question whether my quality of life now is better than life without a smartphone was, I think the answer is at best equivocal. One thing is I’m terrible with maps and directions so GPS has been a life changer. But when I think about whether owning a smartphone would make my kids happier, the answer to that question is a hard no. For now, they’re much better off climbing trees and milking cows. And on the occasions when we do have movie night, they get really excited!

DOREEN
As Neil Postman puts it, “It is important to remember what can be done without computers and it is also important to remind ourselves of what may be lost when we do use them.” The ability to just be, to observe nature, to create without distraction. In EM Forster’s novel Howards End, Uncle Ernst reproves his arrogant German nephew telling him, “It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven. That is not imagination. No, it kills it.” Point being that if a child can learn to focus on their one square mile or what’s in front of them, that’s a real strength.

RICHARD
It’s actually pretty intuitive that “creating”, whether it’s growing things, building things, creating an imaginary world of your own in unstructured play, all of that is going to be better for a child’s development than inhabiting worlds created by people with a profit motive. And another thing: a responsible parent only lets people they know and trust spend time with their kids. And that list for me doesn’t include Susan Wojcicki or Mark Zuckerberg, or Logan Paul or PewDiePie.

DOREEN
One thing I want to recognize at the end here is that many people are constrained by circumstance and often have no choice but to let their kids entertain themselves with an iPad.

RICHARD
If there’s one thing I learned during Covidtide (especially at the beginning when the weather was just nasty) it was how quickly technological Puritanism starts to seem ridiculous when the choice is between four kids at each other’s throats and Disney Plus. And now my kids are Star Wars fans so that’s good I guess. 

DOREEN
So on that note...

Richard
In the words of Qui-Gon Jinn “Your focus determines your reality.”

DOREEN
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