Charlie Bit My Finger - Harry and his little b...
Image via Wikipedia

A recent New York Times Magazine feature titled, “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction,” has been making the rounds recently. The article follows one student, Vishal, through a series of academic challenges that are uniformly pinned on his enjoyment and use of technology. Experts, parents, and teachers weigh in, and a few tangential anecdotes are offered to bolster the narrative, which essentially boils down to the Nicholas Carr argument that Google is making us stoopid. You know, technology is making us easier to distract, more susceptible to procrastination, and less able to achieve sustained intellectual engagement.

Are you still with me? Or did that little cry of “Squirrel!” go off in your head, tempting you to click away? Can you focus?

Unfortunately, narratives like the one offered in the Times largely fly in the face of the facts, proving that superficial and cliché thinking is a pitfall even for reporters and editors with supposedly superior concentration skills.

And it all smacks of a kind of anxiety-mongering aimed at oldsters.

Did the Times just get a demographic snapshot from its market research department and write this article in response?

Time available to spend online has been largely been liberated from time watching television. Yet, one of the few facts offered in the Times‘ story is that media engagement is up overall, as if this alone gives us cause for worry.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found earlier this year that half of students from 8 to 18 are using the Internet, watching TV or using some other form of media either “most” (31 percent) or “some” (25 percent) of the time that they are doing homework.

This is indicative of the kind of sloppy thinking the story has at its heart — failing to differentiate between passive viewing and active media usage, casting aspersions without true cause-and-effect relationships, and so on. Of course, spurious speculation follows close on the heels of mangled facts. In one part of the story, a woman described as a “veteran teacher” has this to offer:

You can’t become a good writer by watching YouTube, texting and e-mailing a bunch of abbreviations.

This is patently untrue. YouTube is full of interesting amateur videos, many of which are based on clever, uniquely voiced scripts or amazing, long-term projects that were certainly storyboarded out (those Post-it Note animations, for instance). There is already good writing buried within YouTube. The creativity it and its ilk have unleashed means more people are attending to writing, creating, crafting, and presenting information, and that leads to a higher level of information literacy. Texting and emailing well require all the things good writing does — a sensitivity to audience, the ability to tailor language and deploy rhetoric situationally, and a skill with capturing attention concisely. In fact, young people are probably writing more than ever.

Interestingly, Don Tapscott, author of the book “Grown Up Digital” and a significant researcher and observer of how technology and youth intersect, was not interviewed for the Times story. And no wonder. His facts would have ruined the narrative. Fortunately, the Times is no longer as dominant a media voice as it once was, so Tapscott could get his message out in a response on the Huffington Post.

And he wastes little time getting to the gist of his response:

. . . there is no actual evidence to support the view that this generation is distracted, performing poorly or otherwise less capable than previous generations. In fact the evidence suggests that on the whole, this is the smartest generation ever. IQ is up year over year for many years, university entrance exam scores are at an all time high and it has never been tougher to get into the best universities. Furthermore, volunteering amongst high school and university students is at an all time high and in the US the percentage of kids that are clean in high school — i.e. they don’t do drugs or alcohol — is up year over year for 15 years. This is a generation about which we can be enormously hopeful.

Tapscott is right that stories like this are potentially dangerous, making us believe that technology is the problem when economic inequality is the problem. An essay in the Fall issue of n+1 talks about how education is actually feeding the economic discrepancies in the United States even though it was hoped it would help to provide more social mobility for the poor:

The obscenely undemocratic model by which public schools are funded by local property taxes means that kids tend to be better educated (and college-admissions counseled) in wealthier school districts. . . . universities today are more elitist than meritocratic [because] going to one costs so much. Overall inflation since 1980 is 179 percent while the price of a college education has risen by an astonishing 827 percent. Income distribution has skewed radically toward the rich across the same period. . . . Over the past generation, in other words, US higher education went from being the main lever for equality to being the laboratory in which the elite — in the broadest sense — clones itself.

The bigger problems facing this generation, like every generation before, are economic — the lower economic tiers are still under-served, and the US tax system makes achievement a self-reinforcing loop. That is, because primary schools are financed largely by local property taxes, people who are well-off can afford better homes and make better schools which make better students who later can afford better homes, and so a cycle in which education divides society instead of uniting it sneaks in.

However, as Tapscott notes, many of those in the lower tiers probably could make it. But their schools are too boring and uninteresting to hold them. Part of this is economic (their environments are not up to snuff), but part of it is that their outside lives are more stimulating. Even here, though, technology is only playing a minor role. A recent Pew Internet study revealed that technology use is correlated with income — the more money you make, the more technology you have and use. So, the economic inequalities not only affect education, but also access to technology. It may be that a lack of access to the benefits of e-commerce, Google, and other online information treasures is also working against students already beset by economic problems.

The world is not getting worse. In many ways, it’s getting better for students and teachers. We’re just getting older, and the next generation’s form of rock-n-roll is making us nervous.

But let them play, and remove the economic barriers facing them. Do that, and there’s every indication that they’ll be just fine.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

View All Posts by Kent Anderson


13 Thoughts on "Anxiety and Clichés About the Digital Generation? It's Still the Economy, Stupid"

While the economic issues you mention are enormously important, I think the real issue raised in the NY Times article centers around parenting. There have always been distractions for kids, things that take them away from their studies. Perhaps as technology has advanced, there are more, and they are more readily available, but the issue remains the same, one of taking responsibility for raising your children and supervising their activities. In my youth, you could have written the same story about a kid who had an Atari 2600 in his room to use unsupervised which was taking him away from his schoolwork. Or his own telephone line. Just as each generation thinks it’s the first to discover sex, each generation of parents thinks it is dealing with completely new and frightening issues. Of course these days we have a 24 hour media cycle to help feed the hysteria.

A few notes though–while I generally agree with what Tapscott is saying, it should be noted that it’s difficult to compare university entrance exam scores over time, as they have been regularly adjusted upward over the years. Many schools, if not most, now have a volunteer work requirement, something you had to be motivated to do on your own back in my day. So I’m not sure his evidence really shows that the current generation is magically smarter and more altruistic than past generations. Just as with the technological fearmongering above, things may not be all that different.

I agree, success and failure have many factors — but parenting isn’t a magic tonic, either. Some kids are going to fail no matter what, some are going to succeed no matter what. But this is why I had an initial and fundamental problem with the anecdotal journalism in the Times article. You could have picked another 2-3 kids and come to the opposite “conclusion” about technology’s role in success/failure.

And as a society, if we are misled to believe that technology is a major force lowering educational outcomes while ignoring the financial inequities truly driving widespread failure for disadvantaged students, then stories like this are truly dangerous.

The connections the NYTimes made between technology use and cognitive prowess in children are largely inferential because we cannot study children like we study white lab rats — or even undergraduates for that matter. This leads most of us to gather the data that fit our world-view and support our anecdotal evidence.

That said, I’ve sat in the library watching students write papers while simultaneously sending out tweets, IMs, and cell-phone text messages. I’ve also had students tell me that they take drugs for ADHD (like Adderall), which I am told are easy to come by, either by subscription, friends, or the local college black market, something confirmed by our local college newspaper. Strangely, I can often tell when someone is on one of these drugs when they write a paper.

Yes, distractions have always been around us, but the laptop-as-educational-and-entertainment-tool seem to make present distractions a little harder to block out.

Don’t believe everything Tapscott says either. What I’ve read about college admissions test scores doesn’t suggest that they have increased much, if at all, in recent years. See, e.g., the table of mean scores on the SAT here: And as someone who regularly interviews applicants to Princeton every year, I can confirm what David says about “volunteering”: it is not really voluntary if you want to get accepted into a top school. But if technology makes us dumber, consider the evidence about what reading does:

Despite the winter conditions, closed airports, and delayed trains, the UK desk of the Scholarly Kitchen successfully dispatched 3 chefs (myself, Ann Michael, and Howard Ratner) for Matt Richtel’s talk at STM Innovations today in London (Scholarly Kitchen 3, Guardian 1, New York Times 1, Wall Street Journal 0 — just saying).

Interestingly, Richtel’s talk focused largely on the neurological underpinnings of his thesis, which he freely admitted were often inferential (and often in mice). The Times article, which I had not read prior to the talk, comes across much more focused on the distractions of today’s technology and its impact on education and does, indeed, sound like so much bluster before it about the death of civilization due to writing, novels, radio, television, rock ‘n roll, video games, fast food, MTV, PowerPoint, and the Internet.

His talk today was focused much more narrowly on the effects on the human brain (as all ages) of persistent multi-tasking. I suspect there is at least some merit to the notion that there might be some changes to the way we think brought about by technology. I don’t think there is enough evidence to make any conclusions but there does seem to be enough inferential evidence (some of which is presented in the NY Times piece and some of which was not) to warrant more investigation (on this narrow question, leaving aside for the moment any pedagogical implications or claims about the imminent death of civilization, which clearly will be brought about by Wikileaks and not Facebook).

The other 2 chefs may have other perspectives.

I believe a video of is presentation will be available shortly on the STM web site.

I don’t disagree that we adapt how we think to the environment we’re in. I just don’t think the plasticity of the brain is exceeded by such environmental shifts, nor is multi-tasking necessarily a less productive way for the brain to operate. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that the more our brains are stimulated, with proper rest and not too much stress, the more creative and adaptable we are.

Thanks for flying the Scholarly Kitchen flag for us.

My only comment is with the segment dealing with YouTube as an example.

I would argue that watching a thoughtful and well-written YouTube video does not make one a better writer.

Writing makes one a better writer.

As a species we are programmed to evolve to suit our environment – its how we survive – as different tecnology comes into our world our brains are keeping up very well – our kids will have to live in this urban fast happening, fast thinking world, they are smart – it’s a different smart to when i was young back in the 40’s and a different smart when my grandparents were young –

unfortunately what doesn’t change as fast as tecnology is finacial and social inequalities – nor do poor parenting skills which have always been with us – give the kids an even playing field – give them respect and love and realistic expectations and they will fulfil

I like this entry. Having just graduated in 2008 from college though, I think it’s worth it to clarify that my current generation faces so much anxiety about the future.

9/11 was a visual scar that marked the beginning of deadlock in politics and wasted spending on useless wars. The end of high school and majority of college were marked by the dismal Iraq war and the onset of Afghanistan. And all the while was the growing suspicion that government and population had become too large and too divided to make relevant change.

There was the rise of fanatical right-wing media, which forced a response from left-wing media, just as fanatically, completing the polarization process.

And as a young college student, I watched as a bunch of useless adults polarized politics, preventing young, passionate people from effectively speaking out and ending the Iraq war. Or preventing a bad president from getting a second term.

Meanwhile as I finished studying my ass off in college, a bunch of irresponsible adults were recklessly overselling property shares on the stock market, driving the US economy into the ground.

And right when I and others graduated, that’s what we are greeted with: here’s your diploma and by the way it’s absolutely useless because a bunch of irresponsible adults drove the economy into the ground so everyone is losing their job. And now you need 10 years experience to be a receptionist. Oh and you better start paying back those loans by the way.

Meanwhile nobody can get their heads on straight about whether or not to take climate change seriously or even the health of our planet seriously (even though the basic fact is that it is finite, therefore logically for survival we should have as little impact on it as possible.)

Then Afghanistan becomes a fully-fledged war, North Korea and Iran might want to make nuclear weapons, and now China wants to destroy the United States.

All in the final conclusion that useless economists are still debating about whether or not the economy will recover sooner or later. And we college graduates are still looking for work while we are told that the aging baby boomers now will be taking the rest of the social security money pot so we better start saving our own money which we can’t earn yet because we can’t get jobs.

And that is the state of our generation. We were handed a destroyed world by irresponsible adults and that is our theme. Gloom and doom. Apocalypse. Has there ever been a generation so anxiety-ridden?

Technology now allows us to escape. Which is what we all want to do. My anxiety-ridden generation distracts itself with technology from this lousy society we live in today. And says shame on you to the adults that have all failed us.

The same adults who think stimulating the manufacturing of cars in Detroit is going to save our economy. We know better. We understand that our planet is finite and therefore the most logical step is to always move forward to leaving less of an impact on it. And we have the technologies to do that now. So we’re just waiting for all the old people to die and get out of our way so that we can finally move forward on that solution.

And maybe then we’ll create a world that doesn’t need to be so stupid and anxiety-ridden.

Our generation will be the most important generation for this planet yet.

“marchumpert” omitted one fact: people are now living much longer into old age, and since baby boomers failed to save enough for their retirement (and/or had their retirement portfolios decimated by the crash), the younger generation will also have the responsibility of taking care of aging parents–in addition to all the other burdens this generation will carry. Unfortunately, they won’t have the numbers necessary to vote for changes that will improve their lot. We might better call this the Doomed than the Millennial generation.

“Doomed” is harsh. Actually, there’s an easy solution to the population asymmetries in America, and that’s to reform our immigration laws so that the surging young South American workforce can contribute legitimately to another cycle of growth and prosperity. The book “The Next 100 Years,” which I reviewed here previously, touches on how despite stubborn refusal to do this, at some point it will become obvious and unavoidable.

That’s a good point, Kent, but the political forces are aligned against this right now, as you know. Of course, comparatively speaking, the U.S. doesn’t face as great a problem in this respect as, say, China, Japan, and Russia do, all of them having a more skewed demographic than the U.S. does.

Comments are closed.