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Column: Adult-Free Zones: The Power and Danger of the Internet

By Jack Creeden

One does not have to look very hard to find a story these days about technology and education. The most recent development has to do with ChatGPT, AI’s most recent language model. It is now possible for students to submit essays for class assignments or as part of a college admission application without having done any research or drafted a single sentence of the essay!

One must acknowledge, however reluctantly, that these news apps are remarkable technological advances. It appears that the task of researching a topic, organizing the material in an orderly fashion, and then drafting and revising an entire essay has been taken care of for all of us (full disclosure: I actually wondered if I should try it out instead of writing this article myself. I did not. All the insights and errors are my own!).

Others have used this space to comment on the emerging presence of ChatGPT in our K-12 classrooms. Indeed, we must recognize and take advantage of the many ways technology can enhance our teaching and learning. And we need to safeguard academic integrity and our students from the inherent dangers lurking in cyberspace. If unchecked, ChatGPT creates the potential for a whole generation of students to graduate from our schools who have never learned how to research a topic and present findings and conclusions.

How Did This Happen?

I will leave the development of those safeguards to others. Instead, I cannot help but wonder how our students lost the understanding of academic integrity and where we as teachers have failed to introduce them to basic values that guide research, writing and communicating in a world where technology defines what we do?

Learning to make good choices is an important part of early adolescent and adolescent development. We know from research and decades of classroom experience with middle and high school students that the slow frontal lobe development among teens and pre-teens is a major factor explaining behavior at these ages. Frontal lobe development is at the heart of executive functioning, the set of cognitive skills that include the capacity to plan, organize, initiate, self-monitor and control one’s responses. Visit any middle school in America and you’ll witness first-hand the range of rudimentary and more advanced frontal lobe development among the students.

The best middle school teachers are those who know their academic disciplines well and can teach to a classroom where the frontal lobe development varies widely. Those teachers are not just experts in their chosen field, but more important are masters at developing cognitive skills in students whose affective development and behaviors are not easily aligned with traditional classroom learning. It takes highly intentional efforts by faculty to insert themselves into the world of early adolescents and help them continue to learn. Without middle school faculty devoted to both the cognitive and affective development of students, middle schools would collapse and have a worse reputation than they do today!

Adult-Free Cyberspace

Which brings us to the adult-free zone of the internet. During the Covid pandemic, teaching and learning were delivered virtually from kindergarten to graduate school. Post-Covid, we now realize that K-12 students spent far too much time in front of their screens in the last 18 months. Learning has seriously been eroded because of Covid.

But it’s not just cognitive development that has suffered. Middle school and high school students were on the Internet for good portions of their waking hours, and when they were not in a hybrid or virtual class, the wide world of the Internet was available to them.

There literally are no Codes of Conduct or Classroom Essential Agreements out there in cyberspace. Schools can write Acceptable Use Policies for students, but it is only after certain behaviors have been exposed do we learn of the violations.

Unlike a classroom, in cyberspace there is no faculty member to redirect, intervene or issue a warning about impending behavioral choices. Cyberspace is an adult-free zone, and the students who are currently in high school and middle school have had close to two years to explore without much supervision.

As a result, we have seen a wide range of unacceptable online behaviors, word choices, and mean-spirited interactions. The discriminatory language focuses on race, religion, gender identification, learning capabilities and any other factor that can classify someone as different. It’s group behavior at its worst, and it appears to be exceptionally bad when the group is interacting in cyberspace.

What To Do?

It is obvious that parents cannot monitor 100% of their children’s screen time. But just as we set guidelines in our classrooms about what is acceptable behavior, parents need to have frank conversations and take specific actions with their children about the use of technology. Here are sone of the recommendations from the experts:
• Delay as long as possible giving your child a cell phone. The Wait Until Eight pledge encourages parents to join together and delay issuing a cell phone until 8th grade.
• If your children do have cell phones, they should be handed over to parents early in the evening to cut down on cyberspace roaming. And remember that the cell phones should be charged overnight in the parents’ room, not the child’s.
• Intentionally check on the laptop that is being used for homework. Some families require that laptop use for homework needs to be completed in a public space in the home, not a bedroom. At some point, if homework is done, take the laptop to the parent’s bedroom also.
• Why would any student need an iPhone or Verizon watch? Many schools restrict the use of cell phones in school. Now we must restrict this new device that is a phone, text messaging and email system.

It is important for adults to help students find acceptable behaviors as they work their way through the sometimes turbulent times of adolescent. The Internet is, by definition, a largely adult-free zone. We must, therefore, find ways to help middle and high school students make good choices when the adults are not watching.

Jack Creeden is the Head of Whitby School. He has served as the Head of several other independent schools, and been chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Association of Independent Schools.

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