Kids These Days

Matt Richtel in the NYT about the the new generation’s brain being fried by technology:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing 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.”

Maybe. Certainly this line of research is worth undertaking. To me, though, brains that are wired to perform well in an environment of task-switching sounds like a step forward. When looking at something like the anecdote that opens the piece—a kid who’s supposed to be reading Cat’s Cradle but keeps screwing around online instead—I think it’s worth taking an initial stab at a more deflationary account.

Circa 1810 there were very few things one could do to entertain oneself at home. Even reading a book posed serious logistical challenges after sunset. Then throughout the 19th century, illumination technology steadily improved inaugurating a golden age of reading long books. Then in the early 20th century we got the player piano, better phonographs, the radio, movies, movies with sound, movies with color, broadcast television, broadcast television with color, cable television, the VCR, the Walkman, video rental stores, videogames, CDs, DVDs, on-demand television, MP3s, HDTVs, Netflix, YouTube, Blu-Ray, etc., etc., etc., That’s a large increase in the number of ways you could be entertaining yourself. But since the incandescent lightbulb and rural electrification, we haven’t devised new ways to fundamentally increase the amount of time one has in the day to do things. Under the circumstances, things that you could do in 1810—to wit, read a book—are bound to tend to get squeezed, neurology aside.