In a conversation with some grade 8 boys yesterday, I asked them what they were going to do over the long Thanksgiving weekend. I got the usual answers about sports and sleeping in … along with a heavy dose of “play video games” usually followed by something like “until my eyeballs fall out.”
The topic of the digital lives of kids has been front and center for a while now, and deservedly so. It most recently made news again with an article in the New York Times headlined “Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction.” This article focuses on our fears for the digital generation … their distractedness and short attention spans. It makes for a scary read, and it will no doubt resonate well with many of today’s parents.
The individual who coined the phrase “Growing Up Digital” is a fellow named Don Tapscott. Interestingly, he was not called by the NY Times reporter for comment. Tapscott’s work is essential for anybody who follows trends in technology and technology education. Most importantly, he is a researcher and not just a storyteller. The picture of technology and youth, it turns out, is not nearly as scary as some would have you believe.
Technology is indeed having an impact on children’s brain development — mostly in positive ways. Research shows that kids today do not think in the “start at the beginning” linear way that we were taught. They jump around and often immerse themselves in an experience first. They wouldn’t dream of reading the manual. Video games and the Internet help them learn how process things more quickly. They are more creative and often better at problem solving as well.
It is true, though, that “multitasking” is not necessarily good for you. Deep and creative thought requires extended concentration on a single thing. This is where adults need to help kids by setting limits and forcing extended work on one topic. We need to help them get into a good rhythm for studying. Tapscott’s book has several great suggestions on how families can set up realistic expectations or limits for technology use.
For the most part though, the elements that kids pick up from their technology use are a great fit for what we talk about as essential skills for the 21st century: creativity, problem solving, collaboration, speed, and innovation. If you have a moment, it is well worth reading Tapscott’s rebuttal to the New York Times. He offers a great summary of the research on this very important topic.
Who knows, it might also be interesting dinner conversation on Thanksgiving.