Do you think future generations will be able to adapt and utilize technology without diminishing their human skills and abilities?

Thinking. The capacity to reflect, reason, and draw conclusions based on our experiences, knowledge, and insights. It’s what makes us human and has enabled us to communicate, create, build, advance, and become civilized. Thinking encompasses so many aspects of who children are and what they do, from observing, learning, remembering, questioning, and judging to innovating, arguing, deciding, and acting.

There is also little doubt that all of the new technologies, led by the Internet, are shaping the way we think in ways that are extremely obvious and some that are almost unnoticeably subtle, deliberate, unintentional, advantageous and detrimental.   The uncertain reality is, with this new technological frontier in its infancy and developments emerging at a rapid pace, we have neither the benefit of historical hindsight nor the time to contemplate or examine the value and/or cost of these advancements in terms of how it influences a child’s ability to think (freely, creatively and critically).

There is a growing theory and body of research showing that technology can be both beneficial and harmful to different ways in which children think.  More so, this influence isn’t just affecting children on the surface of their thinking, but rather, because their brains are still developing and pliable, frequent exposure by so-called digital natives to technology is actually wiring their brains in ways very different than in previous generations. What is clear is that, as with advances throughout history, the technology that is available determines how our brains develops. For example, as technology writer, Nicholas Carr has observed, the emergence of reading encouraged our brains to be focused and imaginative. In contrast, the rise of the Internet is strengthening our ability to scan information more rapidly and with increased efficiency.

The effects of technology on children are very complicated, with both great benefits and increased costs. Whether technology helps or hurts in the development of children’s thinking depends on what specific technology is used and how and with what frequency the technology is used.  At least early in their lives, the power to dictate a child’s relationship with technology and the technologies influence on them, from synaptic activity to conscious thought.

The Attention Span

You can think of the Human Attention Span as the gateway to all thinking. Without it, other aspects of thinking: perception, memory, language, learning, creativity, reasoning, problem-solving, decision making and critical thinking are all greatly diminished or can’t occur at all.  The ability of children to learn to focus effectively lays the foundation for almost all aspects of their growth and is extremely fundamental to their development into successful and happy people.

Attention has been found to be a highly modifiable quality and most directly influenced by the atmosphere in which it is used.  This selective attention can be found also in the animal kingdom in which different species develop attentional skills that help them function and ultimately survive.  For example: wolves, lions, tigers, and other predators have highly tuned visual attention that enables them to spot and track their prey.  In contrast, their prey, including deer and antelope, have well-developed aural attention that allows them to hear approaching predators. In both cases, an animals abilities and senses have developed based on the environment in which they live.

The same holds true for human development. Whether an infant recognizes their parents’ faces or students paying attention in class, a child’s immediate environment determines the kind of attention that they develop. In generations past, children directed considerable amounts of their time to reading, an activity that offered few distractions and required intense and sustained attention, imagination, and memory. The invention of the television altered that attention by offering children visual stimulation, which fragmented their attention span and mustered little need for any use of imagination. With the advent of the Internet, children were thrust into a vastly different environment in which, distraction is the norm and sustained attention is nearly impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is increasingly inhibited.

Technology conditions the brain to pay attention to information very differently than it does with reading. The metaphor that Nicholas Carr uses is the difference between scuba diving and jet skiing. Book reading is like scuba diving, in which the diver is submerged in a quiet, visually restricted, slow-paced setting with few distractions and, as a result, is required to focus narrowly and think deeply on the limited information that is available to them. In contrast, using the Internet is like jet skiing, in which the jet skier is skimming along the surface of the water at high speed, exposed to a broad range of stimulus, surrounded by many distractions and only able to focus momentarily on any one thing.

Studies have shown that reading uninterrupted text results in faster completion and better understanding, recall, and learning than those who read text filled with hyperlinks and ads. Those who read a text-only version of a presentation, as compared to one that included images and video, found the presentation to be more engaging, informative, and entertaining, a finding contrary to conventional wisdom.  Additionally, contrary to popular belief, students who were allowed Internet access during class didn’t recall the lecture nor did they perform as well on a test of the material as those who weren’t “wired” during class. Finally, reading develops reflection, critical thinking, problem-solving, and vocabulary skills better than any visual media.

Exposure to technology isn’t all bad. Research shows that, for example, video games and other multimedia tech improve visual-spatial capabilities (hand-eye coordination), increases the attention span, reaction times, and the capacity to identify details among large clusters of items. Also, rather than making children less intelligent, it may just be making them “different”.  For example, the ever-present use of Internet search engines is causing children to become less adept at remembering things and more skilled at remembering where and how to find things. Given the ease with which information can be found these days, it only stands to reason that knowing where to look is becoming more important for children than actually knowing the information itself.  Not having to retain information in our brain may allow us to engage in more “higher-order” processing such as contemplation, critical thinking, and problem solving.

What does all this mean for raising children in this day and age? The bottom line is that too much screen-time and not enough other activities, such as: reading, playing games, and good “old-fashioned playtime”, will result in children having their brains wired in ways that may make them less, not more, prepared to thrive in this crazy new world of technology.

We must be highly conscious of the changes happening.  Our identity, the very essence of what it is to be human, is changing – in ways both good and bad.

What are your thoughts on this?  Have you noticed this change occurring, in your life, your children’s or close family and friends?  Have you done anything to alter it’s effects?