Digital Natives

PBS Newshour aired a fascinating segment yesterday by Miles O’Brien about the effects of multitasking and addiction to digital technology on adolescents’ brains. The gist: multi-tasking is possible and the constant, simultaneous use of technologies will rewire our brains over time. But it is very inefficient and a constant give and take.

I wrote a while ago about “Our Brains Online.” Now, here’s another take on the story: How kids and “technology addicts” may alter their brains  — for better or for worse. “The prime time for pruning is adolescence,” says O’Brien.“Connections that are used are strengthened. Those that aren’t are disconnected.”

“This is the time when human beings learn to live independently in their environment — 10,000 years ago, teens would have been learning how to stay warm, what berries to eat, or how to hunt. Today, they are learning how to drink from a technological fire hose. And, in fact, in their adult jobs, they may be doing a lot of multitasking. But the other side of that coin is, will they become less good at focusing on one task, of being able to do one thing really well?”

In a recent article in Nieman ReportsDistracted: The New News World and the Fate of Attention,” Maggie Jackson went even further:

“In our rapid-fire, split-focus era, are we able to process, filter and reflect well on the tsunamis of information barraging us daily? Are we hearing, but not listening? If this continues to be the way we work, learn and report, could we be collectively nurturing new forms of ignorance, born not from a dearth of information as in the past, but from an inability or an unwillingness to do the difficult work of forging knowledge from the data flooding our world?”

Adults, who have been using new technologies from the start, show the same brain-changes. “I can feel it, too” admits Nicholas Karr in his December 2010 article in The Atlantic Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

And it all started so promising. In 1982, The Atlantic published a very entertaining piece “Living with a computer” by James Fallows, who describes the positive and time-saving experience of working, and slowly coming to love his first computer (with a 48K memory). At the end of his story, Fallows expressed his hope “for a world in which my sons can grow up to have a better computer than their father had.”

They definitely have. But has that served them well?

Almost 30 years later, Karr is less enthusiastic than Fallows was back then: “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

Much ado about nothing? Maybe. It is up to parents and teachers to introduce kids to things that they wouldn’t look for themselves or are not aware of that they need. Choices are good once you make sure that you don’t get sucked into more of the same of what you already know.

O’Brien muses at the end of his piece for PBS: “I suppose cavemen parents worried about their kids playing with that newfangled fire.”

Fire? What fire? Many of us have lost the ability to really see the glow of the flames, hear them crackle, smell the burning sap of the logs and feel the heat on our faces even if the fire is right in front of us. We watch it on Vimeo, tweet about it, Digg it, Stumble Upon it, blog and text about it and find it on Google Maps or on our iPhone app. And then we immediately forget that it ever happened.

Still, my brain and I don’t want to go back to the time where we couldn’t choose what to read, watch, learn and listen to freely, wherever and whenever.

Hmm. What was I just talking about?

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Tekla Szymanski

Tekla is a New-York based independent content strategist and front-end web developer, a multilingual journalist, writer and editor (both offline and online).

0 thoughts on “Digital Natives”

  1. Interesting article. Personally I love the internet and all the things available here. I have 4 wired-in teens who get good grades, have friends – online and off – and seem well adjusted. It’s all a balance, I think.

    Yahoo News has an article about a mom who unplugged her teens for 6 months! I think this would cause anarchy at my home because it would be difficult for me as well as my kids.
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110118/ap_on_hi_te/us_fea_parenting_teens_unplugged

  2. I watched Miles O’Brien’s piece last evening and came away with a sense that his piece didn’t lead me to much greater understanding of where the propensity toward multitasking via digital technology is taking our collective brain.

    I am the editor of Nieman Reports. In a recent issue, our Summer 2010 magazine, we published a large collection of stories speaking to these issues, with an impressive array of writers (Clifford Nass on multitasking, Nick Carr, Marcel Just interview — he was featured in O’Brien’s story, Doug Rushkoff, Sherry Turkle, Mizuko Ito, Larry Rosen, Esther Wojcicki, and the list goes on and on.) Core topic was the brain and journalism and where these topics intersect. Issue is titled “The Digital Landscape: What’s Next for News? and you might want to poke around in some of the stories and see what interests you. I think you’ll find there are a lot that will.

    The link to this issue’s Table of Contents is:
    http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/issue/100062/Summer-2010.aspx

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