The weather and a terrible cold have kept me home for the last few days, doing some reading, writing and watching TV.
During this time I saw a program on Frontline about how technology is affecting all of us, entitled “Digital Nation”. If you missed it, you can watch it online at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/view/ .
I found two segments to be particularly interesting: One had to do with multi-tasking, which many people consider an essential 21st century skill. A group of students at Stanford University were specially chosen to participate in a study, based on their high frequency of multi-tasking; for example, texting, looking at Facebook, listening to a classroom lecture and searching the internet, all at the same time, using multiple screens.
These students underwent brain imaging to measure how quickly they were able to switch between tasks without losing focus. Even though the students were very confident in their multi-tasking abilities, the brain imaging showed that, in fact, they performed quite poorly.
Professors from several universities commented that the study reinforces what they have observed for themselves, that students today, while they are as bright as those of the past, are not able to focus for long periods of time.
Mark Bauerlein from Emory University claims that English professors say they cannot assign a book of over 300 pages anymore, and in fact, one student who was interviewed boasted that he had not read a book in years. He relies on the internet equivalent of Cliff notes. (On the program they showed him “reading” Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, or rather an extremely shortened version of the play. He said it took him about fifteen minutes. Do you think Shakespeare is rolling over in his grave?) As someone who loves getting “lost” in a great book, I hate to think of a future generation not enjoying that same pleasure.
Professors also say that students demonstrate disorganized thinking. Their papers are often a series of unrelated paragraphs rather than written to build on a central thought. To keep their attention they need to be stimulated in ways that previous students did not.
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, says that students have done themselves a disservice by “drinking the Kool-Aid”, believing that constant distraction is good for them. This is certainly food for thought as we find ourselves being drawn into the culture of multi-tasking, and as we raise our children in this culture.
Another fascinating segment talked about the Asian game addiction problem. In Korea, game addiction is rampant and is officially regarded as a psychological illness. Young people in particular seem to be susceptible. They showed one young man going to an Internet Rescue Camp for treatment. The thing that was most interesting to me was that the treatment provided in these camps consists largely of having the kids go outside, interact with one another, and participate in physical, hands-on activities. The reporter for the story called it “recapturing the childhood they lost to computers”. I don’t know about you, but that is one of the saddest and scariest things I have heard in a long time.
Of course there are many, many positive things about technology. For one, it is the reason I can write this blog and you can read it. The question is not whether it is good or bad. It’s not that simple. But as my mama used to say, “You can have too much of even a good thing.” I think that is where the problem lies.Â Time spent with media is time that is not available for doing other things. This is a particular concern for children, because their brains are not yet fully developed, and in order to develop properly they have to have lots of something that digital media cannot provide; they need input from all of their senses.
I recently read about Swallowtail School, a private school in Hillsboro, Oregon, which postpones use of computer skills in the classroom until high school “to give them a break from the electronic impulses coming at them all the time, so their sensory abilities are more open to what’s happening around them”. What makes this especially interesting to me is that among the families who send their children to this school are several employees of Intel, the well-known technology company. The founder and faculty chair of the school says, “These parents value technology, but they understand that there are aspects of being a human that aren’t inside a computer.” We all know that, but unless we are intentional in acting on it we can all too easily find ourselves drawn into the lifestyle of distraction that digital media offers.
I am going to try to be more aware of this in my own life, and with my grandchildren. In fact, reading what I have written, I think it’s time for me to turn off my computer, phones and television, and go for a walk!
Wishing you well,