Technology and Moral Development

April 15, 2009

Our technological trajectory is so steep today that it feels something akin to the speed of light for the baby boomers that helped set it in motion.

Imagine the world of the adolescent today. Now, remove Facebook, Nintendo, XBox, and Wii. What do you have left?

Probably the next best thing to a psychotic break in anyone under 20.

When I tell my daughter that I grew up with a black and white TV, I get the kind of blank look that lets me know that life when it was safe to roam the neighborhood on our bikes just doesn’t compute (no pun intended). None of today’s kids can remember before virtually every household had a PC, and it wasn’t much more than a decade ago when posting on Ebay was considered a technological feat.

Our technological trajectory is so much steeper today that it feels something akin to the speed of light for the baby boomers that helped set it in motion. Kids increasingly do school work using technology, earn money using technology, play using technology, and socialize using technology. For better or for worse, it became an integral part of our culture while we weren’t looking, and it has implications for virtually every aspect of our lives—including, researchers are saying, the social and emotional development of our children.

Yes, the story is all over mainstream news, but I think it’s worth a second look, especially now that we’re in a state of flux as a nation. Just scroll through 10 or 12 stories on MSNBC—right now we’re rethinking our political policies, our business practices, what it means to be employed and a part of a family. The effect of technology on our children’s development is something that we never really thought through, and it was only a month ago that we read about the negative effects of media exposure on kids, including tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, obesity, doing poorly in school, and ADHD.

I hadn’t found the journal article online as of yesterday, but there are several other news pieces online that summarize the research, albeit with a twist. Somehow Twitter became the scapegoat, even though an expert interviewed for the article stated that he was less concerned about social networking sites than games and television which continually offers up information too quickly for children and teens to adequately process it. The researchers say that if kids don’t have an opportunity to reflect on social experience, they may not fully appreciate the psychological states of others. This leaves them wanting in terms of some positive emotional attributes, such as compassion and admiration for others.

This is useful information for parents and teachers alike. While we can appreciate the tools that technology has provided to us, we need to remain aware of the fact that we have physical, emotional, and cognitive muscles that aren’t necessarily exercised the way that they should be—or at all–when we allow our days to be consumed in front of a screen.