Growing up digital, wired for distraction

Growing up digital, wired for distraction

He typically favours Facebook, YouTube and making digital videos. That is the case this August afternoon. Bypassing Vonnegut, he clicks over to YouTube, meaning that tomorrow he will enter his senior year of high school hoping to see an improvement in his grades, but without having completed his only summer homework.On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

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

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is 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,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Centre on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

It is a tension on vivid display at Vishal’s school, Woodside High School, on a sprawling campus set against the forested hills of Silicon Valley. Here, as elsewhere, it is not uncommon for students to send hundreds of text messages a day or spend hours playing video games, and virtually everyone is on Facebook.

The principal, David Reilly, 37, a former musician who says he sympathises when young people feel disenfranchised, is determined to engage these 21st-century students. He has asked teachers to build websites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia centre.

He pushed first period back an hour, to 9 am, because students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, he says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.

“I am trying to take back their attention from their BlackBerrys and video games,” he says. “To a degree, I’m using technology to do it.”

The same tension surfaces in Vishal, whose ability to be distracted by computers is rivalled by his proficiency with them. At the beginning of his junior year, he discovered a passion for filmmaking and made a name for himself among friends and teachers with his storytelling in videos made with digital cameras and editing software.

YouTube bully
But he also plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 am, even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a “YouTube bully.”

When he was 3, Vishal moved with his parents and older brother to their current home, a three-bedroom house in the working-class section of Redwood City, a suburb in Silicon Valley that is more diverse than some of its elite neighbours.

Thin and quiet with a shy smile, Vishal passed the admissions test for a prestigious public elementary and middle school. Until sixth grade, he focused on homework, regularly going to the house of a good friend to study with him. But Vishal and his family say two things changed around the seventh grade: His mother went back to work, and he got a computer. He became increasingly engrossed in games and surfing the internet, finding an easy outlet for what he describes as an inclination to procrastinate.

“I realised there were choices,” Vishal recalls. “Homework wasn’t the only option.” Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families.

Research also shows that students often juggle homework and entertainment. The Kaiser Family Foundation found this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either ‘most’ (31 per cent) or ‘some’ (25 per cent) of the time that they are doing homework.

Some neuroscientists have been studying people like Vishal. They have begun to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch.

In an experiment at the German Sport University, Cologne, in 2007, boys from 12 to 14 spent an hour each night playing video games after they finished homework. On alternate nights, the boys spent an hour watching an exciting movie, rather than playing video games. That allowed the researchers to compare the effect of video games and TV.
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.

Vishal sits near the back of English IV. Marcia Blondel, a veteran teacher, asks the students to open the book they are studying, “The Things They Carried,” which is about the Vietnam War.“Who wants to read starting in the middle of page 137?” she asks. One student begins to read aloud, and the rest follow along.

To Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.

“How can you have a discussion in class?” she complains, arguing that she has seen a considerable change in recent years. In some classes she can count on little more than one-third of the students to read a 30-page homework assignment.

She adds: “You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations.”As the group-reading effort winds down, she says gently: “I hope this will motivate you to read on your own.”

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