Edward Udel: The downside to the upside



Clarence Fanto’s fascinating piece, "Obsession with online world’s big downside" (Eagle, Jan. 10) focuses on local psychologist Jonathan Aranoff who counsels young men who in Fanto’s words "Å  have become so immersed in online activities that their ability to form relationships and develop careers has been jeopardized." Dr. Aranoff suggests that obsession with cellphones, computer games, Facebook, Face Time, Skype and iPads has stifled creativity and deprived young people of "a sense of explorationÅ "

As a practicing psychologist, Dr. Aranoff is in a unique position to understand the depth of fascination and obsession with online activities. As a teacher, I too have concerns.


Two years ago in the lobby of a local high school, I saw two students straddling a wooden bench and facing each other. They were separated by less than three feet yet they shared no audible conversation. Each of them held a cellphone and their thumbs flew over the keys. After each text message was completed, there was a pause. Shared laughter and eye contact made it clear that they were communicating with each other. They were alone in the lobby and faced no interruptions or distractions, yet they chose to communicate electronically, exercising their thumbs rather than their vocal cords. Observing them, I was reminded of Jonathan Swift’s Laputans who required a touch on the cheek or ear with an animal bladder to initiate conversation.

Many educators rely upon technology. In one middle school math class, each student has an I-Pod. Their teacher invites them to "vote" on the correct response to a math question and they register their votes electronically and anonymously. All of the students eagerly participate. Only the teacher knows how each student responds. Responses are tallied and presented on a screen and the teacher explains the advantage of this process. Students who were once reluctant to express their opinion or respond to a question now eagerly participate. With the shield of anonymity, students no longer fear being identified for a wrong response.

In the first case, exchanging text messages with someone sitting in the same room may provide the participants with added privacy, aerobic thumb exercise and improved muscle memory but it may also reflect a society in which there are fewer and fewer opportunities for meaningful personal conversations. Shorter attention spans and communication deficits may be linked to our growing obsession with electronic toys and tools.

As to that math class with stress-free electronic voting, it is hard to argue against a process that successfully engages all of the students. However, I can’t help but wonder if the need that some students have for anonymity to overcome their anxiety will hurt them in the future when they are required to perform in situations without a cloaking device. Does the anonymous vote have a downside and actually serve to preserve and reinforce their fears? Should the learning process provide opportunities and support for students to make errors, acknowledge them openly and then make adjustments just as they will be expected to do in the workplace?

I recently observed and evaluated projects prepared by ninth graders and most of them were of the power point variety stored on flash drives. These presentations were colorful and certainly engaging, but students’ bulleted statements contained numerous spelling, capitalization and punctuation errors. The technical sophistication of these projects would have been unexpected and unimaginable 10 years ago, but the written portion would have received much more careful attention. I wonder if all of the effort given to the creation of exciting visuals diminishes the attention paid to written words.

Many youthful friendships now involve little or no physical contact. The practice of inviting friends "over" to share a movie or a board game has given way to cyber relationships. Friendships are now forged, maintained, strengthened or destroyed online. Children I know who have been immersed in the cyber world rarely spend any time with their friends.

The computer has revolutionized the teaching of writing and made information instantaneously accessible. However, if there is a flotsam for each jetsam, and an ebb for each flow, it should come as no surprise that our technical innovations and their obsessive use can produce some downsides. Our rush to equip our schools with the latest and best technology should be tempered by an awareness that excessive dependence on technology can also cause harm.


I hesitate to give the use of technology full credit for the breakdown of social relationships. There are other factors as well, including the rapid disappearance of the evening family meal. Parents holding down multiple jobs are rarely home to eat with their children and to discuss the news of the day. There may no longer be a patterned family experience that values conversation.

Still, online obsession is certainly a contributing factor to what appears to be a new standard of personal physical isolationism. The new technology is here to stay and evolve. Our children love to use it and schools are taking advantage of that devotion. However, our rush to technology should be guided by a comprehensive assessment of its long-term impact on human behavior.

Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.


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