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Stagnant NAPLAN results a symptom of teenagers becoming 'screen-agers'

Is it any wonder that the NAPLAN literacy and numeracy results published last week show that the writing skills of years 7 and 9 students have gone backwards?

Before we play the blame game between teachers and parents, we need to look at the growing elephant in the room: screen time by "screen-agers".

"We have seen children's learning curve flatten as tablets have replaced textbooks."
"We have seen children's learning curve flatten as tablets have replaced textbooks." Photo: Jamieson Murphy

Federal Education Minister Christopher saw the "lack of improvement" as a wake-up call to go "back to basics" in school education. For many of us parents, this means tangible basics, not virtual basics. We have seen the effects of our children surfing between education and entertainment on the slippery screens.

As parents, we are the first teachers in our children's lives. We can block the applications, look over their shoulder, teach them self-discipline, apply time restrictions and ban screens in bedrooms.

But with so much school work becoming screen-centred, distractions abound. The temptation to discreetly flick between distractions is at their fingertips and minimised when footsteps approach.

At least with textbooks, it is transparent that the student is focused on the "subject" matter and parents can see that no one has been snuck in through the "windows".

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As parents, we have seen our children's learning curve flatten as tablets have replaced textbooks from year 7.

We have seen their handwriting deteriorate as the computer brain auto-corrects and spell-checks with no incentives for the students to learn from their lazy mistakes and phonetic habits.

We have seen their proofreading deteriorate as grammar-check stagnates any improvement in sentence construction.

We have seen their research skills deteriorate as students rely on the logic of Google's search engine by feeding it key words.

We have seen their navigation skills deteriorate as a book's index becomes obsolete and CTRL+F (find) renders that skill redundant.

We have seen their vocabulary deteriorate as online dictionaries and "right-click" synonyms replace autonomous thinking with automatic alternatives.

We have seen them regress from critical thinking to "mindless transcription" and copy-paste because they can. This has been borne out by 2014 Princeton University research of students, whereby the laptop note-takers showed shallower processing than the hand-writers.

Indeed, we have seen them struggle to hand-write anything more than a paragraph, yet their year 12 exams require them to hand-write many pages for many hours.

The transition by many schools away from textbooks does not prepare students for the real world, but the virtual world. It has fostered laziness and a minimalist approach.

My new book takes an honest look at modern parenting with a strong focus on the challenges of raising "screen-agers". In my chapter "How to compete with a screen", I refer to the screen as "his majesty" who has "invaded my kingdom" because it has become "more charismatic, more colourful, more charming".

I have watched the pattern and the paradox in families too often: children gravitate towards their screens to play games because they're bored.

They shoot zombies but don't realise that their expressionless faces tragically look like zombies – motionless and unblinking. They handle the console as if they are in control of it. When they have saved the world, they finally look up at the real people who share their space, only to realise that the boredom creeps back, with an even greater intensity.

The itch for another fix is irresistible and the cycle continues until the parents intervene.

"I am not addicted!" they yell back at their parents.

"Then why are you having a tantrum?"

One brave teenager recently conceded that the computer console tricks him into thinking he is in control, but it is actually controlling him, sapping his imagination, perpetuating his boredom cycles.

Just as the dummy tricks babies into thinking they are drinking, he saw the console as the teenage dummy, and that it was time he and all teens spat this dummy to reclaim their brains.

While these technological tools were sold to us as enhancing our children's learning curve, the NAPLAN results paint a much flatter picture.

The digital education revolution of 2007 was a great theory. In practice, it may be producing "dumbed-down" teenagers who are gaining digital dexterity but losing basic skills. The NAPLAN results are a wake-up call to regain balance between the rectangular world and the real world.

Joseph Wakim is the author What my daughters taught me (Allen & Unwin, August 2015).