Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction?

[Edited from NY Times article by Beat Schwendimann]

Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families. Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University who led some of the research, said that when adults were not supervising computer use, children “are left to their own devices, and the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.”

Research also shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment. The Kaiser Family Foundation found earlier this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either “most” (31 percent) or “some” (25 percent) of the time that they are doing homework. In a national study of over 2,000 young people, aged 8 to 18, researchers found that participants were able to squeeze the equivalent of 8.5 hours of electronic media into 6 chronological hours because of multitasking. By the time Net Generation kids reach their twenties, the typical teenager has spent over 20,000 hours on the Internet and over 10,000 hours playing video games of some kind (Source: Digital game-based learning).

Students’ use of technology is not uniform. Mr. Reilly, the principal of Woodside High School in California, says their choices tend to reflect their personalities: Social butterflies tend to be heavy texters and Facebook users (One student sends over 27,000 text messages per month (see video below). Students who are less social might escape into games, while drifters or those prone to procrastination might surf the Web or watch videos.

Researchers at the German Sport University in Cologne found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality than watching TV, and also led to a “significant decline” in the boys’ ability to remember vocabulary words. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Daniel Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says he believes that young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus. “If you’ve grown up processing multiple media, that’s exactly the mode you’re going to fall into when put in that environment — you develop a need for that stimulation,” he said.

Schools try hard to find the difficult balance between using technology for education and limiting distractions by technology.

Don Tapscott responded with a critical reflection to the NY times article: New technology has always been accused of negatively affecting young people, from television to videogames. Back in the late 1960s, the teenage Baby Boomer in the United States watched an average of over 22 hours of television each week. They were passive viewers. Current teenagers watch less television than their parents do, and they watch it differently: They are more likely to turn on the computer and simultaneously interact in several different windows, talk on the telephone, listen to music, do homework, read a magazine, and watch television - all at the same time. So we need to be careful before jumping to conclusions about the effects of digital immersion.

There is no evidence that this is causing a decline in face-to-face communication. Time spent online is not coming at the expense of less time hanging out with friends; it's less time watching passive television. There is evidence that current teenagers are efficient at multitasking and actively creating new media content (for example by creating videos, remixing music, writing blogs, etc.). Digital immersion and multi-tasking can be pushing the human brain beyond conventional capacity limitations by leading to better task-switching abilities and better active working memory. Young people are likely developing brains that are more appropriate for our fast paced, complex world.

What's needed is an entirely new model of pedagogy and educational modus operandi. To focus on the student, teachers have to step off the stage and start listening and conversing instead of just lecturing. In other words, they have to abandon their broadcast style and adopt an interactive one. Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the teacher's information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the school. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles.

Read full article here: NY Times: Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction
Read Don Tapscott's reply here


  1. Great post!
    I'm a regular reader of author Nicholas Carr's blog that comments on the issues of attention and distraction in the digital age: http://www.roughtype.com/

  2. Thanks for posting this Schatz! I think teachers need to incorporate technology, but only if it benefits the mind and the material. A colleague of mine at SMC last year did his masters on incorporating iphones into the classroom..I think he was a history teacher. Also, I know that "buzzer" systems in schools are great for quizzing students because it instantly lets the class know how they are doing and what % of students got the right answer...only problem is these sets are expensive.