Kids' brains are being changed, and not necessarily for the better, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation of recreational media habits of 8-18-year-olds. Its findings suggest that our upcoming generation of voters and taxpayers may have difficulty either thinking deeply or staying focused on anything for very long.
Our youth devote approximately 8 1/2 hours a day to electronic media, compared to 43 minutes for all non-school reading and less than an hour doing homework. Increasing amounts of media time involve "multitasking"-doing two or more things at the same time. For example students may surf the web, watch TV, talk or instant message with friends while they are doing their homework.
Multitasking impresses adults, ("Look how smart these kids are-I don't know how they do it!") and it confers a frenetic sense of accomplishment. Yet this trend has dangerous implications, not only for the quality of the homework in question, but also for the quality of the minds that are developing, untended, within the crania of "Generation M" (for Media, of course.)
Current neuroscience makes it clear that any activity in which a brain engages causes physical changes in both structure and function. The more time spent, the more significant the effect. At all ages, the brains of today's children are increasingly being shaped by media, over which parents exert little control. Only about 20 percent of parents in this survey enforce rules about media use; those who do, incidentally, have youngsters who spend less time with media and more on homework. Should we be more concerned about this unprecedented intrusion into the mental lives of our children? Indeed, we should.
Between ages 8 and 18 critical developmental stages unfold in the human brain, which retains considerable plasticity throughout adolescence. At each stage of development, potential connections proliferate; during the ensuing "sensitive" period, use and practice of developing skills are necessary to firm up and link networks of neurons into effective working systems. The Darwinian law of neural development, "Use it or lose it," applies to mental skills at every stage.
Among mental habits needing refinement-and practice-during ages 8-18 are self-directed attention and motivation, moral development and social conscience, language expression, problem-solving, planning and organization skills, and the ability to reason abstractly and reflect critically on issues in life and in society. Time spent flitting among electronic stimuli and responding, often superficially, to multiple inputs (especially if they are of questionable quality) may train the brain to juggle many things at once. Yet how much time-and what brain circuitry-is left for mental depth and the core qualities of mature intelligence? How about the ability to focus deeply on a conversation or a political issue, or to attach one's brain to a single task and persist within the lonely enclaves of independent thought without the instant reinforcement of multiple sensory stimuli. Studies of highly creative adults show that roaming around in one's own reflections often inspires invention, but such talent presupposes the ability to stop, reflect, and generate thought.
Intelligent use of media in reasonable amounts will probably not erode young people's brains. Some electronic amusements may even develop certain capacities if the brain is actively and deeply engaged. When a brain is "multitasking," however, each activity gets proportionately less brainpower, especially if the tasks call on similar brain areas. Although we may be able simultaneously to listen to music and draw a picture, trying to converse or write and read intelligently at the same time reduces the amount of attention-and the mental depth-available to each. The more we divide attention, the more likely we are to "dumb down" the activity. Moreover, a brain at the mercy of electronically demanding stimuli becomes a rapid responder rather than an initiator of thought. Reflection and the ability to ponder (what an old-fashioned word!) become unnecessary encumbrances.
Attention deficit disorder is a new "epidemic" of psychiatric diagnoses in our young people. Fundamentally, it means having a mind at the mercy of changing stimuli. Multitasking may be "cool", but if it means losing the ability to reflect, imagine, plan, execute, and evaluate one task at a time, we should all start paying attention.
Article by Jane Healy, Educational Psychologist, Writer
Jane Healy is an educational psychologist, teacher, and author of Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds (Simon& Schuster, 1999) and Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence (Doubleday/Broadway Books, 2004). She is currently concentrating on writing another book.