Teens and Technology: The New York Times on Distractions (and Tools) for Learning


Photo by Megan.

11.22.10 | The New York Times on Sunday presented a multi-page spread on how technology-obsessed teens at Woodside High School in Redwood, Calif., are distracted to the point of being unable to focus on reading or homework and questions what all this technology is doing to kids’ brains:

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 Center 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.”

Which prompted Siva Vaidhyanathan to respond: “Dear @nytimes: There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired.’ Get a grip.”

The latest in the series “Your Brain on Computers,” the package includes video of students talking about their relationship with technology; teachers’ views on technology in the classroom; campus video of Woodside students and the educators who are trying to engage them on their own technological terms; and tips on how to help teens achieve a “healthful digital diet.”

I’ve read a number of critiques of the NYT’s coverage, but none so far that mentioned there’s only one girl featured in the main story and the student videos — a 14-year-old named Allison who said she sends and receives 27,000 texts per month. The Times failed to present any gender balance, or to recognize that teenage girls are gamers and media creators, too. While several boys discuss the pros and cons of being always-on, we hear from only one girl and, not surprisingly, she’s used to represent the extreme version of using technology to maintain and expand social connections.

The main story also references studies showing that “young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families.” It specifically mentions research by Duke University professors Jacob L. Vigdor and Helen F. Ladd.

Back in July, Nichole Pinkard, a visiting associate professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University and the founder of Digital Youth Network, added some perspective to their findings, noting in part:

The core of Vigdor and Ladd’s argument is that “access” to a computer alone does not improve but rather hinders academic gains by low-income students. The essential problem with this argument is the assumption that just providing a student access to computer – without necessary supports such as mentors, peers and activities that create an environment for the computer to be used as a learning aid – would have a positive impact on learning.

Does providing a child access to a pencil and paper – without support for learning to write – turn that child into a writer? As with all learning tools, the utility of the computer is only realized when a child is supported in using it as a learning aid.

Fortunately there’s more to the story than studies. Writer Matt Richtel does a nice job of showing how technology connects Vishal Singh, 17, to his passion, filmmaking, and the rewards of instant feedback and interactivity that come from working on digitally produced stories.

“I think technology has been bad for me as a student but good for me as a learner,” Singh says in his video interview.

The principal, David Reilly, notes that he isn’t worried about students like Singh who show a high level of creativity and problem-solving, even if their grades go down. But other teens need more structure. Ramon, an introverted student who says he plays six to seven hours of video games a day (sometimes to escape family fights) and doesn’t hand in homework, acknowledges that gaming gets in the way of his studies, though he can’t envision giving it up freely: “I can’t stop playing them, and I don’t want to stop playing them, but at the same time I want to not play as much so that I can fulfill that desire to become a doctor and become successful.”

Over at HASTAC, Cathy Davidson offers a thoughtful response to arguments about attention, beginning with her compliment to the author for being “as constructive as possible about the digital overload that many kids today (not to mention their parents) are feeling.”

But Davidson, who has a book coming out next year titled “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn,” notes that the article “blurs the distinctions between ‘distraction’ and ‘attention’—and throws around terms like ‘addiction’ as if they were self-evident.”

Addiction, of course, is the most focused form of attention. That is one problem with the way the question of attention is currently framed in so much of the popular press; it blurs different conditions by simply thinking of them all as “bad.” That is not helpful. Attention Deficit Disorder, for example, means you have trouble paying attention to some things and not others. The gamer who can’t pay attention in school has ADD for school ... but not for video games. Until we get the physiology straightened out, we won’t be able to help kids who truly need help — or we’ll assume they all need help (when they do not).

We also need to distinguish what scientists know about human neurophysiology from our all-too-human discomfort with cultural and social change. I’ve been an English professor for over twenty years and have heard how students don’t pay attention, can’t read a long novel anymore, and are in decline against some unspecified norm of an idealized past quite literally every year that I have been in this profession. In fact, how we educators should address this dire problem was the focus of the very first faculty meeting I ever attended.

She concludes:

Virtually all of our institutions of learning have evolved to support an industrial age model. The problem is not in the students. It is in the mismatch between the way they are being taught and what they need to learn. We’re only fifteen years into the Information Age. It took 150 years to make education for the Industrial Age. It is a challenge to rethink education from the ground up, but we need to. For the sake of our children, it is time to stop complaining and looking backwards and to start thinking about the best ways we can help our children succeed in a future they have inherited and will help to shape.

Plus: Virginia’s Heffernan’s New York Times Magazine column is all about attention spans. It’s not part of the this-is-your-brain-on-technology series, but it should be. She smartly raises the question of what is an attention span, really, and questions whether it is culturally determined rather than biologically mandated:

Whether the Web is making us smarter or dumber, isn’t there something just unconvincing about the idea that an occult “span” in the brain makes certain cultural objects more compelling than others? So a kid loves the drums but can hardly get through a chapter of “The Sun Also Rises”; and another aces algebra tests but can’t even understand how Call of Duty is played. The actions of these children may dismay or please adults, but anyone who has ever been bored by one practice and absorbed by another can explain the kids’ choices more persuasively than does the dominant model, which ignores the content of activities in favor of a wonky span thought vaguely to be in the brain.

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