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Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction

| December 21, 2010

by Jim Bruce

Today’s reading is a Matt Richtel piece “Growing Up Digital, Wired fro Distraction” which first appeared in the New York Times on November 21, 2010.  

This piece caught my attention for three reasons:

1.  The picture it conveys of teenagers’ use of technology today.  While my kids, three decades ago when they were  teenagers, were distracted and, in my view, sometimes wasted time, computers, cell phones, and the steady stream of stimuli they present pose a much greater challenge, really, I think a threat, to focusing and learning.  As Michael Rich, a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School, observes:  “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently,” rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing.    

2.  Early research to understand what happens to the brains of young people who are constantly online and in touch 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.  Rich says “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.  But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”  Daniel Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, believes that young, developing brains are becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus.  

3.  So, we get to the obvious question:  What is the impact of teenagers involvement with technology today on the ability of even the rightest students to study subjects such as science and math which require concentration and focus?  While I don’t think we have much of the answer yet, I believe that there will likely be two early impacts on higher education:  Incoming students’ will have higher expectations about the technology – access anywhere, more sophisticated learning applications, etc. – they encounter on campuses and their difficulty focusing for longer periods of time may challenge traditional teaching styles.

This easy read provides a lot for all of us to think about, both with regard to children and grandchildren, and to the availability and use of technology on our campuses.


.  .  .  .    jim