Blaming the new new thing for an old old problem

In Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction in the New York Times last month, reporter Matt Richtel opened up a gold mine of frustrated parents, educators and brain researchers all blaming digital devices for distracting youth from their real jobs of getting good grades and doing what they are told. I guess before radio cars TV phones computers no youth ever failed to do their chores or complete their homework. How shortsighted and forgetful are we as a culture?

The obligatory human interest lead-in to the story, Vishal Singh, a soon-to-be high-school senior, is initially portrayed as someone being led down the dark path of destruction by his wanton digital ways. He plays computer games for 10 hours a week (OMG,) hasn’t read an assigned book, and he has a Facebook account that sometimes he updates at 2AM. This is obviously a life going down the drain.

In the modern day equivalent of “your face might freeze that way,” the article quotes brain researchers who claim that young brains are being permanently harmed by multi-tasking.

The same article that claims that youth can’t pay attention to anything because of all the stimulation also portrays young Vishal Singh as someone deeply involved in digital film-making and storytelling. In fact, he gets A’s in those subjects and is pursuing it for college and career. He’s also the on-call tech support and web designer for his family.

So which is it people, computers cause your brain to decay or not? Perhaps it only causes brain rot in things that are of no interest to you? I hardly think it’s the computer that is causing good grades and deep learning in subjects of interest, and bad grades in subjects this young man does not care as deeply about. Seriously, this is new? Do I have to find a quote from Plato or Socrates complaining about how youth don’t pay attention nowadays (and probably blaming it on newfangled stone tablets?)

After a few other examples of students who text, play video games or do other horrifying things like get B’s, the article revisits Vishal. He is editing video for a school project, meticulously crafting a few seconds to convey the precise feeling and tone that he wants. He doesn’t check Facebook, he doesn’t get distracted  – amazingly enough, his brain seems to function just fine. He is neglecting his other homework, though, Latin and an economics essay. The article comes to a remarkable conclusion – that the difference is “interactivity”. Sigh.

This is so obviously wrong that it’s almost dumb. It’s not about clicking on stuff, or even brains or computers, it’s about interest and having an amazing tool at your fingertips. The computer is unlocking the world to young people, and it’s a bit more interesting than Latin worksheets. The computer is also the right tool for the student who IS interested in Latin or economics, bringing them together with others of like mind and doing actual work.

Do I believe that youth should be free to do whatever they want with no limits or expectations? No, that’s just a silly exaggeration. I believe that using computers and technology, youth have extraordinary new access to communities of interest, expertise, and choices. And what I would like to see is that people stop blaming computers and vilifying youth just because they have their own unique interests and goals, and use the tools of the day to reach them.


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