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.”