Is Technology Rewiring Kids' Brains?
son's high school English teacher says it is "impossible" to get students to
read an entire novel today. Their attention spans are just too short. They
can't concentrate, and don't seem to like to reflect and discuss the finer
points of literature. This is really scary. Is this a trend, and is it related
to video games and the Internet?
Brain scientists are "on it." You've
touched on a key controversy involving educational technology in particular,
and the impact of technology on all human life in general.
A good book that explores how
Internet and other digital technologies may be making kids less able as readers
is by Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University: Proust
and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She is
researching whether the emphasis on speed is destroying the need for deep
comprehension, and says it's too soon to tell.
Some scientists do think the wired
world may be changing the way we read, learn and interact in a negative way.
One of them is Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist at UCLA, who argues that constant
exposure to digital technologies such as the Internet and smart phones can
alter how the brain works.
He has said that people become less
skilled at "reading" people's facial expressions during conversations when
their attention is mostly devoted to a computer screen instead of live
interactions, for example. The less practice a human being has in interaction
with other human beings, the worse he or she will be at understanding and
conducting human interaction in the future, he claims.
Among the ills this suggests: social
awkwardness, an inability to interpret nonverbal messages, isolation, and less
interest in traditional classroom learning.
Smart parents will make sure their
kids get "unplugged" and hang out with their friends as free from technology as
they can, as often as they can, to develop good social skills.
Of course, these fears are nothing
new. The philosopher Socrates warned more than 2,000 years ago about the rise
of the written word, which he worried would lead to superficial learning and
thinking patterns, compared to the older oral traditions.
And in more recent years, a large
swath of people worried that TV would make children more violent, or more passive
and obese, and in either situation, worsen their educational achievement and
You can read more about Small's
concerns in his book, iBrain: Surviving
the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, in which he makes it clear
that he is not certain - just worried -- that digital technology is changing
Not all of the brain/technology
research has a negative slant. Some researchers suggest the Internet is
actually GOOD for us. A study led by Mizuko Ito of the University of
California, Irvine, concluded that by "hanging out" online with friends —
sending instant messages, for example — teens learn valuable and relevant
communication skills about social interaction, privacy, appropriateness, and so
interesting take on this topic comes from the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas
Carr, reviewed here: