Growing Up Gadgety

by Robert Pondiscio
November 22nd, 2010

Is prolonged, focused attention a 21st Century skill? 

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

“Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction,” a major Times thumbsucker, is long enough to challenge the attention span not just of teens but Trappist monks.  But it’s must-reading for educators.  Behind the undeniable lure of technology is a risk 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,” says Michael Rich of Harvard Medical School, the executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The tension, of course, is at the same time researchers are raising red flags about raising children immersed in a digital bath, education is redoubling efforts to increase technology use in the classroom for engagement, customization and efficiency.  The Times makes much of a research study, familiar to readers of this blog, that reading and academic works goes down not up, when computers arrive in the home.

The result is one of those Rorschach tests of an article, virtually guaranteed to confirm your biases  (The world is going to digital hell!  We’ll never engage kids if we don’t embrace technology!).  The most interesting section of the piece is the Times look at current research on ”what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.” 

The researchers looked at how the use of these media affected the boys’ brainwave patterns while sleeping and their ability to remember their homework in the subsequent days. They 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.

Other studies cited by the Times suggest that “periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.”  “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” observes Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” says Dr. Rich, who the Times points out, recently gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”


  1. [...] Growing Up Gadgety « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by Growing Up Gadgety « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — November 22, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  2. What continues to astound me is that these findings are not obvious to educators and policymakers. How did we ever get into the mindset that schools need to “catch up” with the times and get everyone wired? Or rather, why is there so little attention to the other side of this?

    There’s another aspect to this problem. Some kids are more focused online, not less–but they are focused on visual media. There’s the boy who retreats into the world of video games when family members are arguing. There is the boy who spends hours working on a music video, which he plans to include in his college applications.

    So it isn’t only that young people are growing accustomed to switching tasks; they are also learning to focus on things that appeal immediately to the senses. Books, which require translation into sounds and sight, may require more cognitive effort of a certain kind (without instant rewards) than they are willing to put out.

    If this is the case–and it seems to be–shouldn’t schools put aside the visual stimuli (at least part of the time) and demand that students focus on the book, theorem, or idea? Yes, technology has a place in school, but schools should give students a strong counterbalance, so that they will not only be able to read something substantial, but have the patience and desire to do so.

    And yes–bring back boredom. We need to get away from the idea that students must be “engaged” and “doing something” at every moment. If students do not learn how to sit still, to struggle in their minds, to tolerate having nothing immediately to do, then the more complex studies will always elude them.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — November 22, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  3. I have found it interesting how all the attention-switching and multi-tasking is supposed to be the wave of the future (according to some). It seems to me that concentration–sustained, focused attention to something complex–is by far the more difficult skill to learn and the easiest to lose.

    I recently read “The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains” and would recommend it. For myself, I love the Internet and technology and funny cat videos–but all the hopping around is definitely doing something to my mind. It is much harder for me to concentrate these days and I find I have to work at it. If I–a lifelong reader who can still spend hours submerged in a book–have a hard time hanging on to my skills of concentration, what must it be like for a 20-year-old who has never developed any in the first place?

    It’s a tricky balance between ‘engaging’ kids and teaching them to think about one thing for five minutes at a time. But I can’t help thinking that schools should be erring on the side of teaching concentration. How that is supposed to happen, especially without parental cooperation, I don’t know.

    Comment by dangermom — November 22, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  4. As the wheel continues to turn, we will soon have a generation of parents who have had no experience in the classrooms many of us “traditionalists” are familiar with – classrooms that require a solid foundation in skills in order to move to higher level critical thinking, concentration, and independent growth. In my courses in cognitive science and brain study, I recall learning about that brain seeks “patterns and programs,” and the importance of providing these critical elements in our curriculum design and classroom procedures. My own public school district is in the midst of a technology feeding frenzy, and while it is wonderful to see students “engaged,” I am often dismayed to observe exactly what it is that they are engaged in!

    Comment by LynDee — November 22, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  5. His website says he is a “media-trician,” let the healing begin

    Comment by Ms. Miller — November 22, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  6. I don’t think this is about their brains are being rewired. Our brains have always been wired to be easily distracted. Technology is just really good at doing that. Probably a survival skill, since ignoring a snapping branch might mean becoming dinner for a predator.

    This is hardly unique to younger people. Plenty of adults are always on their smart phones and ignoring their kids or spouses.

    Concentration and attention does not come naturally.

    Comment by Daniel Ethier — November 22, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  7. I must say I feel a sense of despair when contemplating a fight against the tech juggernaut. I caught a kid watching TV on his smart phone in class the other day. What new microscopic or implanted devices do we have to look forward to in the coming years? The sales armies of Silicon Valley have conquered School. School’s culture is being liquidated and reorganized for the benefit of the conquerors.

    Comment by Ben F — November 22, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

  8. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sheila Stewart, Robert Pondiscio. Robert Pondiscio said: Growing Up Gadgety — does growing up immersed in technology help or hurt #education? [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Growing Up Gadgety « The Core Knowledge Blog, The Core Knowledge Blog -- — November 22, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  9. @ Ben

    In the spirit of lighting a candle against the dark, I sat down to read Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories with my older daughter last night. Seems Rushdie saw the attention span issue coming; the book is (gads!) 20 years old.

    When Haroun’s mother leaves the family at 11:00 one day, the boy’s attention span is immediately cut to 11 minutes. the protagonist can’t do anything for more than 11 minutes at a time.

    It’s fine for the Times to suck its collective thumb, it’s good for teachers to stress basic instruction and not feel the urge to have all instruction on a SmartBoard.

    But as ever, at the end of the day, it is up to us parents to sit down with our kids and as President Obama said) tell them to put away the DS. Can’t think of a better way to address the issue than to model good behavior.

    And my self-serving, feel-good outcome?: At breakfast this morning, my daughter said “Daddy, I want to find out what happens to Haroun?”

    Comment by Matthew — November 23, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  10. Bringing back the boredom is easier said than done. We should probably understand why children enjoy being on social networking sites or playing video games. If we can trigger the same responses in their minds while teaching in the classroom, we’d probably have an easier job.

    Comment by ILEAD India — November 25, 2010 @ 5:31 am

  11. “How did we ever get into the mindset that schools need to “catch up” with the times and get everyone wired? Or rather, why is there so little attention to the other side of this?”

    How did this happen? Diana, I’m afraid it happened because there a a lot of people with an enormous amount of money riding on this. They have staked their future and ours on this costly, desperate endeavor. I’m sure many of them believe that they are doing the right thing, but I don’t see many of them making a sincere effort to determine if this is really the case. When you literally have hundred of millions of dollars riding on convincing people that gadgets will make their lives better, you can hardly afford to entertain doubts. This process has been going on for decades now. As part of our teacher evaluations, we are judged on our use of technology, with no regard to purpose or effectiveness. If I present the definition of a word on a projector using PowerPoint, I am rated highly. If I write precisely the same thing on a whiteboard, I am deficient. This is what happens when you allow interested corporations to be involved in writing educational goals and standards. Those promoting the current corporatist reform efforts conveniently forget that they have been working at this for quite some time. This didn’t just happen; it was imposed by those with next quarter’s sales goals in mind. The introduction of the yearly model change into education has been a disaster.

    Does anyone reading this site ever read anything by Wendell Berry? He has been warning us of the danger posed by the uncritical use of these technologies before Microsoft even existed. The problem is much larger than education.

    Comment by Robert Fauceau — November 28, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  12. I am an avid user of technology in the classroom. I use it with discretion, forethought, and at times, doubt. However, I think this issue is more complex than choosing between out-of-control multitasking and concentrated linear thought. As a veteran teacher, I have used technology for far more than “engaging” students. Using the Internet doesn’t have to mean swimming in the shallows. It provides an endless library of possible paths and gives students access to a fountain of information for independent study that was previous not possible. Technology is a tool. Just like any curriculum is a tool. It must be used artfully. Part of this involves creating media literacy — a subject often given short shrift. We have an opportunity to allow students to reflect metacognitively on the tools they are using. They are more savvy than they are given credit for and most of my students are well aware of the dangers of multitasking. If we approach these challenges as subjects of study in and of themselves, I think we will all fair better as both educators and students.

    Comment by Robert B. — December 7, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

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