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.