Is Technology Ruining Our Children’s Brains?

Posted on March 17, 2011

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I just read this very thought-provoking article from the New York Times, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.”The authors share the story of a Vishal, a bright high school senior whose grades have taken a major downturn since he discovered youtube and facebook.

In the very beginning of the article, Vishal decides to watch youtube rather than complete his only summer assignment, to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.   When asked why he doesn’t want to read, Vishal resonds, “On YouTube, you can get a whole story in six minutes. A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

It sounds as if Vishal wouldn’t be interested in a nook or kindle either, since the novel he’s been assigned will take longer than six minutes to read whether in a book or ereader. Does this bother anyone else? If you can only focus for six minutes on a story, how will you ever get the depth? Will he ever be able to enjoy a full symphony? One of Shakespeare’s plays? A president’s state of the union address?

Funny – I was just discussing this in a way with a friend. There are certain verses in the Bible that I’ve always had issues with them. Turns out the problem is that the people quoting them were taking them out of context. Now that I have the full context, they make much more sense.

When Vishal only wants the six minute summary, he’s not getting the full context. And this constant multitasking is having a definite effect on his brain. To quote the article, “Scientists have now found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.”

This is MAJOR news. If teens are texting until 2 am, their brains aren’t getting nearly enough downtime. Thus they aren’t processing or making connections. Aren’t these the very higher level thinking skills we wish for our students? How can they be active, responsible citizens if they can’t think? Yes, they can create mashups on youtube and tweet about it, but when are they delving below the surface?

As an English major I would sometime read the assigned works two or even three times. Each time I picked up on a yet unseen aspect of the work. There are books I still read every year, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m always amazed yet again after every reading how much I missed in the readings before.

Will these students be able to sit in front of an original Monet and drink it in for over an hour, the way I did on my first trip to the National Gallery of Art? Seeing a real painting is not the same as seeing it on a laptop or iphone. And glancing at it for a few seconds isn’t the same as spending quality time with an amazing portrait or landscape.

Every time I go to our local art gallery I have to  sit and stare at a wonderful African door currently on exhibit.  Each time I notice something different. As I watch the lighting changes, the people come and go and make comments, and my love for this door grows. Not an experience to be rushed.

We definitely need to keep all of this in mind as we work with our technologically-savvy students. While we can engage them by using the tools that are already part of their world, let’s not forget to give them time to process. And help them slow down a little and maybe even try doing just one thing at the time.

 

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