Is new technology impairing our children’s ability to learn?

Last week, The New York Times ran an interesting story about the effects of constant electronic stimuli on learning and attention in children.

Students have always had distractions and time-wasters, but computers, cell phones, iPods, and electronic games represent a whole new level of stimulation — and studies show that these make for profound challenges in focus and learning:

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

Despite concerns by experts and a growing body of research, schools continue to accelerate the use of technology in classrooms so students can be reached on their own “technological territory.” Is this good or bad? There are arguments on both sides, but there’s no denying that by constantly being plugged in, the developing brain’s ability to learn and to sustain activities like reading is seriously challenged.

One of the boys interviewed in the article — a senior in high school, described by his teachers as naturally bright — spends many hours every day on the Internet… but he is now unable to finish his homework or even a book:

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

One 14-year-old girl sends and receives 27,000 text messages each month, carrying on as many as seven text conversations at a time during every spare moment between classes — even while studying. She blames all the multitasking for her declining grades.

The most intriguing part of the article was not the latest research but what some students said when they were interviewed: They secretly wish their parents would take away their computers and cell phones because they don’t have the self-control to do it themselves.

The entire article can be read here.

Zoe Romanowsky

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Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Godspy.com. Zo

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