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Technology        < Previous        Next >

 

 

Technology: Controversies

Is Technology Rewiring Kids' Brains?

 

Q. My 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 outcomes.

 

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 brain circuitry.

 

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 forth.

 

Homework: A interesting take on this topic comes from the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, reviewed here:

 

http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=16231

 

 

By Susan Darst Williams www.ShowandTellforParents.com Technology 2011

 

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