Many people today watch the expanding role of digital media in our everyday life with—let’s be honest—mostly feelings of fear and dread. They focus wistfully upon things that we are losing or moving away from, in the changing cultural climate: things they value, such as silence, long stretches of uninterrupted time, or the act of reading a physical, bound, made-of-paper book.

And they worry—a lot.

While he’s clearly not a young student, this man is juggling many different kinds of inputs. Is he on “overload?” Are our kids?

They worry that our digital gadgets put us on “overload,” and that this goes double for students. They feel that these devices keep kids (and all of us) too over-stimulated, that they load too much of the wrong kind of artificial light into our eyes, and that they keep us too sedentary on our ever-expanding buttocks.

They also live in terror that through social media their children will become entrapped by sexual predators and identity thieves, that they will become addicted to pornography from exposure too young, or that they will become addicted to games.

They worry that in the name of “multi-tasking,” we are doing more and more things superficially, distractedly, and just plain badly.

Online predators are a genuine threat to young Internet users.

Unfortunately, all of these things can and do cause problems. People who have concerns about digital media and the “information” or “services” they can deliver have many very valid points. There are a vast array of downfalls, dangers, and unintended results associated with digital media. And all of those fears/worries go double for the people who run schools. In most parts of the world, educators are operating in loco parentis legally. All sorts of bad results could rain down upon them if they fail to keep the students entrusted to their care safe from such threats.

How do they attempt to protect kids? Usually they clamp down, restrict access, and seek to control as much as possible how and when students use the Internet. They install blocking software, patrol computer labs relentlessly, and the best practitioners also talk seriously and frankly with students about the dangers that can lurk “out there.”

This is perfectly in keeping with a custodial role. But we need to think carefully about what we restrict and how we restrict it—or we can end up impeding the very education we are attempting to enhance.

Take as an example the story told by Susan Einhorn about her daughter and some of her classmates. They were preparing for an exchange-student trip to France. They developed friendships with their French “opposite numbers” through Facebook . . . but they couldn’t communicate with each other via Facebook at school, because the site was blocked.

This single example is hardly definitive, and it in no way diminishes the genuine dangers touched upon here. But it represents a dissenting opinion. As this series continues, I’d like to explore some of the ways that the use of digital media has become controversial, and some of the new and imaginative ways in which it can be used to deepen learning and enhance thinking skills.

IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to the University of Phoenix for the “distracted man” illustration, which they ran with an essay about digital distractions. The “online predator” illustration appears to have originated in Latvia(?), but I was unable to track down the artist’s name. I first located the (unattributed) image in a post about tips for parents on the “Tech Welkin” blog.