I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 9, 2010

Caught in the Web

A recent story in USA Today (Always-on technology: Are we adapting, or losing focus? (USA Today, Aug. 4, 2010) by Marco R. della Cava) contrasted two positions regarding the impact of the Web on kids’ ability to think and focus.  The first, advanced by Nicholas Carr (see below), argues that the Web is having a negative impact.  Others argue that it doesn’t.

I discussed some of this in a couple of posts months ago (“Impact of technology on kids’ thinking abilities” and “The Virtual Frontier”).  But being more conscious of the effects of the Web (and not just the Web, but TV as well), viewing my experience with kids in the time since then, along with some other reading, has led me to believe that Carr is right.

I recently finished reading Rafe Esquith’s Lighting Their Fires: Raising Extraordinary Children in a Mixed-Up, Muddled-Up, Shook-Up World.  Esquith, who teaches in a public elementary school in Los Angeles, describes the differences between kids who watch a lot of TV and those who don’t.  Anecdotal?  Yes, but highly persuasive.  And I think a lot of studies bear out his observations.

I believe it’s in the article above that someone says that the Web is really no different than TV — and TV hasn’t messed us up.   I would argue that the latter is disputable.  There’s a lot of garbage on TV.

And TV, by including the visual element, naturally draws our attention even more than radio.  And to a kid it can be hypnotic.  The Web requires even more attention.  That makes it even more addictive in a way, but that’s also an improvement of sorts over TV.  TV was a passive medium.  The Web requires you to at least get involved.  But kids’ brains are still developing.  Do most kids have the self-discipline to know when to stop?  Even if they do, can they?  Some studies show that Web use triggers the release of dopamine.

We need to teach kids how to make good decisions

Does this mean we should shut down the Web?  Or prohibit kids from using it?  The answer is obviously no.  The Web is a great tool.  But it can also be a great time-waster.  And too much exposure is not good for kids.  And another reason to be cautious is that marketing has become the predominant driver of the Web.  (See the Wall Street Journal series about Internet privacy for more info on how much information about you companies are tracking so they can target purchasing choices for you.)  Our economy thrives on people who don’t want to delay gratification.  And I think short attention spans make it more difficult to resist buying.  (This would be more coherent, but I’ve spent too much time on the Web.)

I also have to say that I do disagree with some of the comments in the articles about the distraction of hypertext links.  When I was a kid I would often thumb back and forth between pages in encyclopedias and other books, hopping from one reference to another (or even pulling different books off the shelf).  Hyperlinks make it so much easier to check references.  Well, that’s a good example of how people differ.  I find that incredibly useful and I can ignore ones that I’m not interested in.  (Though I have on occasion been known to wander far afield from where I started.)

I’ve also started reading Raising Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World by H. Stephen Glenn and Jane Nelsen.  That was written twenty years earlier than Esquith’s book, but also discusses the problems caused by too much exposure to TV, the inability to delay gratification, etc.  It also discusses how the breakdown of family structures after the Second World War and increasing urbanization also have contributed to problems for kids in many ways.  (I’m behind on summarizing books, so I won’t get into the details.)  I do want to say that the book is focused on building up kids and not tearing them down.  It’s based on what the authors call “perceptual psychology.”

‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet warps you

Book review by Steve Weinberg, USA Today

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” [Carr] asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Carr cites numerous studies to delineate not only the impact on the brain, but also the alterations in brain biology that lead to the impact. It turns out the human brain is a shape shifter, the technical term being “neuroplasticity.” The phenomenon is not easy to explain, but Carr is adept at explaining with as little jargon as possible. “As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

A second USA Today story, this one about college students and information technology, contains mention of a study that I thought worth pointing out.

Back to school: Do kids learn as well on iPads, e-books? … (USA Today, Aug. 10, 2010) by Mary Beth Marklein

Some of the newer devices try to mimic traditional study behavior with features such as the ability to highlight text and take notes in the margins. Still, the gee-whiz technology doesn’t necessarily help students study better, suggests a study published this month in Journal of Educational Psychology. Students often highlight too much material, so building a highlighting function into the technology may simply enable students to continue an ineffective habit, the study found. “Worse, they may not even process or understand what they select,” says study author Ken Kiewra, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

‘Dumbest Generation’? Professor blames technology by Erin Thompson, USA Today, June 3, 2009

Reviews Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), recently released in paperback (Tarcher/Penguin, 236 pp.).

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