As our society becomes increasingly dependent on technology for entertainment, communication, commerce, and even transportation, we all grapple with the challenges of smartphone addiction. This is a problem among adults and an even bigger concern for our children. The youngest generation has never known a world without smartphones, and many are developing their patterns of technology usage well before they’ve developed their social skills. Rising rates of depression among teenagers can be traced to the advent of social networking and the smartphone. As parents, we all worry about the impact that new technology is having on our children.
At the same time as our society works to address concerns about addiction to technology, it is important to recognize that not all screen time is harmful. San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge writes “There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness” If the hyperbolic assertion appears incredible, it’s because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The research that backs up this statement only examined the use of smartphones or computers for playing videogames, texting, social networking, or passively watching videos – in other words using technology for communication and entertainment. It would be fair to summarize that screen activities used for communication and entertainment are linked to less happiness, but to suggest that the problem extends to all screen activities is unsupported by the data.
As adults, we grasp that there’s a difference between using our screen for different purposes – like writing a screenplay, managing a stock portfolio, or reading Facebook. The same applies to our children. Amidst all the devices, apps, and websites for communication and entertainment, it’s important not to overlook the value that technology provides in encouraging and developing creativity. When a student spends 100 hours on social networking, we are right to worry about the impact. But if a budding artist spends 100 hours with a paintbrush to create a beautiful painting, we encourage her creativity. And if the 21st century equivalent of painting requires using a screen, we should encourage it just the same.
Computer science is “brain time”
If technology and screen-time is part of the problem, then computer science and coding is part of the solution. While parents or schools look for ways to reduce screen time among children, we should also encourage them to learn computer science. I don’t suggest this for the reason people expect – it’s not because computer science leads to the best-paying careers, or because it’s the largest source of new wages. We should do this because computer science stimulates creativity, making it one of the subjects students enjoy the most, just behind art, dance, and music. Instead of asking youth to put away their screens, we can channel their passion for technology into a subject that combines creativity with problem-solving, and it also just so happens to lead to the best paying careers in the world.
Over the next few decades new technology advances in robotics and machine learning promise to automate most manual and repetitive forms of labor, leaving pundits wondering about the future of work. While millions of jobs will disappear over the next few decades, it is clear that problem solving, creativity, and working with technology will be the highest demand skills for the jobs of the future. While we help our children avoid the perils of depression associated with screentime, we must also encourage creativity and problem-solving using technology and computer science.
A global movement in education
Most debates in education focus on how we teach: smaller classrooms or longer school days, more tests or less tests, more technology or less technology. There’s not enough debate asking about what we teach. In the 21st century, should we limit students to the same curricular subjects as were taught in the 1900s? No. Can schools adapt to the needs of the modern era, to re-think the curriculum itself? Yes, absolutely! In the last 4 years, hundreds of thousands of educators around the world have recognized this need and introduced coding and computer science into their classrooms and school day. The largest U.S. cities, 40 states, and 25 countries have taken action to add computer science to the school curriculum.
At my organization, Code.org, we recently celebrated an important milestone: 25 million students are on Code.org, making it the largest and fastest-growing platform for learning computer science in schools. What’s fantastic about this is that this progress is being made in public schools, globally, and especially here in the United States. Our data shows that when schools teach computer science, students show greater proficiency, greater persistence, and also greater diversity. As a result, 45% of our students are female, which adds up to 11 million girls on Code.org. We couldn’t be more proud of these girls.
The power of encouragement
So the next time you ask a student to put away her screen, also think about encouraging her to try coding or computer science. Studies show that students who have been encouraged by a teacher or parent are three times more likely to be interested in learning computer science. But it turns out that boys receive far more encouragement than girls. Boys are nearly two times as likely as girls to report that a parent has told them they would be good at computer science.
Thanks to organizations like Code.org, schools globally are offering computer science to millions of students who otherwise lacked opportunity. As parents, we can do our part: discourage children from spending their screen-time on texting and social media, and instead encourage them to try computer science.