Adjunct professor, University of San Francisco
Thinking. The capacity to reflect, reason and draw conclusions based on our experiences, knowledge and insights. It’s what makes us human and has enabled us to communicate, create, build, advance and become civilized. Thinking encompasses so many aspects of who our children are and what they do, from observing, learning, remembering, questioning and judging to innovating, arguing, deciding and acting.
There is also little doubt that all of the new technologies, led by the Internet, are shaping the way we think in ways obvious and subtle, deliberate and unintentional, advantageous and detrimental. The uncertain reality is that, with this new technological frontier in its infancy and developments emerging at a rapid pace, we have neither the benefit of historical hindsight nor the time to ponder or examine the value and cost of these advancements in terms of how it influences our children’s ability to think.
There is, however, a growing body of research that technology can be both beneficial and harmful to different ways in which children think. Moreover, this influence isn’t just affecting children on the surface of their thinking. Rather, because their brains are still developing and malleable, frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring the brain in ways very different than in previous generations. What is clear is that, as with advances throughout history, the technology that is available determines how our brains develops. For example, as the technology writer Nicholas Carr has observed, the emergence of reading encouraged our brains to be focused and imaginative. In contrast, the rise of the Internet is strengthening our ability to scan information rapidly and efficiently.
The effects of technology on children are complicated, with both benefits and costs. Whether technology helps or hurts in the development of your children’s thinking depends on what specific technology is used and how and what frequency it is used. At least early in their lives, the power to dictate your children’s relationship with technology and, as a result, its influence on them, from synaptic activity to conscious thought.
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to focus on the areas in which the latest thinking and research has shown technology to have the greatest influence on how children think: attention, information overload, decision making and memory/learning. Importantly, all of these areas are ones in which you can have a counteracting influence on how technology affects your children.
You can think of attention as the gateway to thinking. Without it, other aspects of thinking — namely, perception, memory, language, learning, creativity, reasoning, problem solving and decision making — are greatly diminished or can’t occur at all. The ability of your children to learn to focus effectively and consistently lays the foundation for almost all aspects of their growth and is fundamental to their development into successful and happy people.
Attention has been found to be a highly malleable quality and most directly influenced by the environment in which it is used. This selective attention can be found in the animal kingdom in which different species develop attentional skills that help them function and survive. For example, wolves, lions, tigers and other predators have highly tuned visual attention that enables them to spot and track their prey. In contract, their prey, including deer and antelope, have well-developed auditory attention that allows them to hear approaching predators. In both cases, animals’ attentional abilities have developed based on the environment in which they live.
The same holds true for human development. Whether infant recognition of their parents’ faces or students paying attention in class, children’s immediate environment determines the kind of attention that they develop. In generations past, for example, children directed considerable amounts of their time to reading, an activity that offered few distractions and required intense and sustained attention, imagination, and memory. The advent of television altered that attention by offering children visual stimuli, fragmented attention and little need for imagination. Then the Internet was invented and children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, because distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary and memory is inhibited.
Technology conditions the brain to pay attention to information very differently than reading. The metaphor that Nicholas Carr uses is the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is like scuba diving; the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions and, as a result, is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available to them. In contrast, using the Internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad vista, surrounded by many distractions and only able to focus fleetingly on any one thing.
In fact, studies have shown that reading uninterrupted text results in faster completion and better understanding, recall and learning than those who read text filled with hyperlinks and ads. Those who read a text-only version of a presentation, as compared to one that included video, found the presentation to be more engaging, informative and entertaining, a finding contrary to conventional wisdom, to be sure. Additionally, contrary to conventional educational wisdom, students who were allowed Internet access during class didn’t recall the lecture nor did they perform as well on a test of the material as those who weren’t “wired” during class. Finally, reading develops reflection, critical thinking, problem solving and vocabulary better than visual media.
Exposure to technology isn’t all bad. Research shows that, for example, video games and other screen media improve visual-spatial capabilities, increase attentional ability, reaction times and the capacity to identify details among clutter. Also, rather than making children stupid, it may just be making them different. For example, the ubiquitous use of Internet search engines is causing children to become less adept at remembering things and more skilled at remembering where to find things. Given the ease with which information can be find these days, it only stands to reason that knowing where to look is becoming more important for children than actually knowing something. Not having to retain information in our brain may allow it to engage in more “higher-order” processing such as contemplation, critical thinking and problem solving.
What does all this mean for raising your children? The bottom line is that too much screen time and not enough other activities, such as reading, playing games and good old unstructured and imaginative play will result in your children having their brains wired in ways that may make them less, not more, prepared to thrive in this crazy new world of technology.