Are Digital Devices Brain Drains?

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My kids’ Christmas lists are dominated by digital devices, or the apps and points for them. In fact, my older son wants either an Xbox or iPad for Christmas and nothing else. The bottom line is, though, he’s not getting either.

No, I’m not punishing him, I’m just drawing a line in the sand as a responsible parent. It disturbs both my husband and myself to see how much time “kids these days” spend playing around with technology instead of playing outside, reading or using their imaginations. I know that may sound “oh so old-fashioned”, but I promise we are not techno-phobes by any stretch of the imagination. My husband works in information technology and very early on convinced me that it’s critical for the younger generation to master the skills needed in a high-tech world. However, he’s even more opposed than I am to getting an Xbox for our 12 year old.

Hard data helps explain why. The New York Times ran an article recently that profiled a senior in a Redwood City high school being lured away from reading an assigned novel to finding a Cliff Notes version on YouTube instead, because he preferred “immediate gratification”. The article’s author, Matt Richtel, interviewed an associate professor at Harvard Medical school who warned “we’re raising a generation of kids whose brains are going to be wired differently”. And by differently, Richtel explains, research shows that means brains that cannot “sustain attention” or stay focused. Those life skills are critical to helping you survive and succeed.

While technology can be a wonderful tool for learning, the article’s author goes on to cite studies that show young people use home computers more “for entertainment, not learning”. Richtel ends his article with a disturbing study that showed when 12 -14 year old boys did homework, then played video games, they didn’t sleep well and saw a “significant decline” in their ability to remember what they learned.

A week after the New York Times article ran, Thomas L. Friedman wrote an opinion piece on the same topic, broadening the warning. He pointed out that as American kids are starting to lose focus and see their grades and graduation rates slip, we have opened up U.S. schools and jobs to more focused foreigners. And, if American kids think they can “get by” after dropping out, Friedman points out technology has taken away many of the lower-skilled jobs that once were the foundation of America’s middle class.

After that one-two punch, Friedman cites Education Secretary Arne Duncan saying today’s dropouts “are condemned to poverty and social failure.” Ding, ding, ding, this fight’s over.

You might feel this is an exaggeration, but I don’t want my son to test these theories. Not that I think he’ll ever drop out, but my husband and I often talk about how much more concentration we had at that same age. So, we had my 12 year old read the articles. (I had to ask him 5 times before he did it). He seemed to understand but didn’t appear bothered by the conclusions. That’s what worries me: kids these days don’t seem to “get it”.

I don’t blame kids for being tempted by technology, because I am too. I know enough to fight it and set a time and place for indulging in what should be considered a hobby only. However, it is more clear to me than ever that I need to limit my family’s digital device obsession.  Not just for them, but for society’s own good.

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