October 7, 2009

Kids and computers: pondering the ways technology is changing our kids

As a Sunday school teacher in search of ways to make Bible stories engaging for first and second graders, I was thrilled when I discovered a flashy PowerPoint presentation that tells the story of Joshua to kids. Without another thought, I carried my laptop to class and introduced Joshua by inviting each child to read aloud from one of seven slides. Their eyes sparkled with anticipation. Even the shiest readers were eager to interact with a computer. Attention? Mission accomplished. Afterwards I spent some time second guessing my attention-getting strategy for the class. How could I have accomplished the same thing with a book?

The verdict is still out on how computer use impacts brain development in kids. There isn’t much research to weigh the long-term pros and cons of a technology-driven world. Anecdotally, we already see the potential impact in young adults joining the workforce. One of my friends is a change-management consultant who works with leaders and managers in technology-driven companies. Most of her clients are in their 20s and 30s. She recently described giving a 90-minute training session for managers on techniques to help employees cope with the rapid pace of change in the workplace. “At the end of the session, the feedback I got was that the training was way too long.” Get the paradox? Her example may reflect a concern neurologists and educators are still studying:  how does early computer use influence the ability to stay focused for long periods?

Here's what's already known about brain development. Children practice age-appropriate attention skills in stages and then move on to higher levels of concentration.  Until the age of seven, kids are acquiring basic attention skills. Too much input at this stage can cause children to either ignore sensory input or become jittery in unjustified ways. When the senses are teased all at once (as many computer programs and games do) it can impede the ability to focus on one thing at a time. The latest counter-argument in brain research says kids may gain better abilities to multi-task.

The question is: can we overtax the multi-tasking skill? The need to sustain attention on things that aren’t necessarily interesting or immediately gratifying hasn’t declined. Could this same struggle be reflected in our propensity to disobey traffic signals when we can get away with it? Stop for a traffic light? Who’s got the time? Boring. We are in such a hurry to be in the next place that we don’t quite have time to be where we are now.

Consider two more potential hazards of early computer use identified by researchers:

1)    Decreased ability to organize responses in a planned way. Some scientists warn that computer programs tend to lead kids through these steps, so they don’t learn as much as they should about taking steps toward a goal.
2)    Unnatural chemical response from computer stimulation. Many games stimulate hormones and chemicals in the brain. Responses to fear and excitement influence heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle changes. These responses become a habit that happens disproportionately to the situation, causing long-term health implications. Development of the part of the brain that governs emotion and complex thought may also be stunted.

As a librarian, I can’t help but wonder whether increased computer use is blurring the lines between information and knowledge. The teachers and college professors I know confirm that easy access to information has caused a loss of context for real knowledge. The only proven ways to accumulate knowledge is from deep study, experimentation, observation and reading—not the media snacking most of us do daily. Those skills will become increasingly difficult for kids and adults without appropriate development of attention. Parents and educators need to remain cautious about computer use for kids. For now, the recommended daily allowance may be comparable to meat in a healthy diet. It should be treated as a side dish—not the main entree.

Three great resources on kids and computers

The Successful Child: What Parents Can Do to Help Kids Turn Out Well, by Martha Sears, Elizabeth Pantley

Brain Development in a Hyper-Tech World, The Dana Foundation

Who Needs Books When We Have Computers, by Jim Trelease

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