Last month at the dentist’s office I was skimming the November 17th issue of Macleans when an article caught my eye. Dumbed Down – The troubling science of how technology is rewiring kids’ brains. There was definitely some troubling information here – though perhaps not all that surprising to some. Among the issues were problem solving and task completion difficulty, trouble with non-verbal thinking skills, lack of empathy, struggle to read social gestures, significant drops in leisure reading, or no reading at all, brains freezing in teen mode. Disturbing too were the numbers.
A study from the California-based Kaiser Family Foundation found that young people absorb an average of 8 1/2 hours of digital and video sensory stimulation a day. By the age of 20, the average teen has probably spent more than 20,000 hours on the Web, and over 10,000 playing video games, according to Toronto-based business strategist Don Tapscott’s new book Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World.
Most personally disturbing for me was the recognition that I have some of the same traits as “Digital Natives” (those in their twenties and younger). Again, this wasn’t exactly surprising. By the time I read this article I had already been enjoying three days of liberation from some of my own addictions to the “constant bombardent” of the digital kind. I had Google Notifier set up to ring a little “blip” for each piece of incoming mail. I developed a Pavlovian response to this bell. Bell means new mail. New mail must be read. Go read mail. In an attempt to break free from this I changed the notifier to “no sound”, but still I could see if the little icon was red indicating new mail. And since I was at the computer already why not run through all of my RSS feeds for the blogs I read? Multiple times a day! So I eliminated the Google Notifier altogether, scrapped all my RSS feeds (because I couldn’t be bothered to go to each site individually looking for updates), and I was free! When three days later I read this article it put into words some of what I’d been experiencing in my own behavior – the “continuous partial attention”, “on the alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news”, and noticed results akin to those in a Microsoft study that found “each time they [employees] responded to an email or instant message, it took them 15 minutes to return to what they were doing”. I believe it.
By necessity, our attention in this mode is shallow and diffuse. Small and others call it “continuous partial attention,” and it turns out to have costs of its own. “When paying partial continuous attention, people may place their brains in a heightened state of stress,” Small says. “They no longer have time to reflect, contemplate or make thoughtful decisions. They exist in a sense of constant crisis – on alert for a new contact or bit of exciting news or information at any moment.”
The brain isn’t built for this sort of protracted strain and eventually, over the course of hours, a condition sets in which Small calls “brain fog.” “Over time,” he says, ‘[it can] actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and later the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex – regions in the brain that control mood and thought.
Some in the article argue that the “Digital Natives” are the “dumbest generation ever”, yet others more optimistically think they are the smartest generation. What do you think? The article closes with this:
The alternative would be to argue that we don’t need to be intelligent anymore because we’ve got machines. “Is that what we want?” he asks. “Is our goal to create a brainless society?”
Well, yes, for some maybe it is. But that’s another story.