Monday, November 22, 2010

Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  This article on the front page of today's NYT captures what I think is a HUGE problem in our country: young people are getting addicted to the TV and electronic gadgets, to the detriment of studying and learning:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

"Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing," said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: "The worry is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently."

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students' digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students' technological territory.

It is a tension on vivid display at Vishal's school, Woodside High School, on a sprawling campus set against the forested hills of Silicon Valley. Here, as elsewhere, it is not uncommon for students to send hundreds of text messages a day or spend hours playing video games, and virtually everyone is on Facebook.

The principal, David Reilly, 37, a former musician who says he sympathizes when young people feel disenfranchised, is determined to engage these 21st-century students. He has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.

He pushed first period back an hour, to 9 a.m., because students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, he says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.

"I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games," he says. "To a degree, I'm using technology to do it."

This article profiles one girl who sends and receives 27,000 text messages per MONTH!!!  When I read this to my family, my 14-year-old said, "That's more than I've sent in my life."  (I hope it's 20x more!)


As I was reading this article, I wanted to scream: "Why the hell are parents allowing this?!?!?!"  I don't blame schools for this (though I certainly wouldn't allow use of cell phones or any texting/electronic devices during the school day) – it's up to parents to monitor how their kids spend their time.  And it's my firm belief that, left to their own devices, kids will spend every moment messing around unless guided/forced to do otherwise.  The plethora of distractions today (video games, texting, Facebook, YouTube, etc.; when I was growing up, there were only two choices: watch TV or hang out with friends) makes it even more imperative that adults monitor kids and set boundaries – but clearly this isn't happening. 


What's scary is that the parents in this article – who are acting like (let's be honest) total morons by doing almost no monitoring/boundary setting – are probably among the BEST parents in this country: well educated, employed, loving, intact families…


This is why I write (on page 49 of my school reform presentation, posted at "If I could fix either all of the parents or all of the schools in America, I'd choose the former in a heartbeat."  The problem is, as I write in the next line: "But I'm not sure it's possible to fix the parents – and I know it's possible to fix the schools."


Page 27 of my school reform presentation highlights where our young people are spending (mis-spending) their time.



Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

Published: November 21, 2010


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