Reflections on “Growing Up Digital”

A few days ago the NY Times ran a piece by Matt Richtel called “Growing Up Digital” which remains at the moment the most emailed, most blogged, and most commented article on their site.  The piece does not necessarily break any new ground, but nicely summarizes some concerns that are on the minds of parents, teachers, and anyone who is just a bit unsettled by the emerging shape of the digital mode of being in the world.   This will be the first of probably two posts featuring excerpts from the Times story accompanied by a few elaborations beginning with . . .

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

An often overlooked or dismissed point.  Many people seem to take some comfort from saying, “this sort of thing has always been around” or “kids have always had distractions” and the like.  But while placing phenomenon on a spectrum is sometimes helpful for the sake of understanding and perspective, it often masks real transformations.  Sufficient difference in quantity can amount to a difference in quality.  A hurricane is not just a stronger breeze.  On the color spectrum it may be hard to pinpoint where the transition takes place, but at some point you are no longer orange, but blue.  Differences in scale have put us in new territory.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

Adults writing on this topic who find that they have entered the digital world and believe themselves to have retained their print-literate skills often fail to recognize the difference it might make to be a digital native rather than a digital immigrant.  Adults above the age of 35 or so were brought up with a non-digital skill set associated with print (although television had already been altering the skill-scape).  Those who can’t remember not having a smart-phone or 24/7 access to the Internet are in a very different situation.  They have the digital skill set, but never picked up more than the remnants of the print skill set.  They are not in the same position as the older generation who naively look at the situation and say, “Well, I can do both, so they should be able to also … no problem here.”

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

Done uncritically and re-actively this amounts to digging your own grave (please note the qualifiers at the start of the sentence before becoming angry and dismissive).  To borrow and re-appropriate a line from Postman, it is not unlike “some turn-of-the-century blacksmith who not only is singing the praises of the automobile but who also believes that his business will be enhanced by it.”

The principal, David Reilly . . .  is determined to engage these 21st-century students. He has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.

Engaging 21st-century students is the goal, however, the question remains:  To what end?  Our collective cultural mind seems divided on this point without knowing it.  If we want to engage students with the goal of cultivating the mind set, skills, and sensibilities associated with print, then we’d better think twice about a bait and switch approach.  The tools of engagement will undermine the goal of engagement.  However, if we want to instill skills and sensibilities that we might loosely label digital literacy (or, following Gregory Ulmer, electracy) then the tools and the goals will be in sync.

The hope of many, including myself on my more optimistic days, is that 21st century education at its best will be able to impart both skills sets — traditional and digital literacy.  On my more pessimistic days, I’m not so sure this is going to work.  In any case, the two are not the same and the tools for each tend to work against the ends of the other.  More on this later.

Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance, particularly in low-income families. Jacob L. Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University who led some of the research, said that when adults were not supervising computer use, children “are left to their own devices, and the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.”

Really?  I could have saved them the grant money.  He goes on to note that even when homework is being done it is usually accompanied by continuous text messaging and sporadic Internet use.  Whatever homework is done under those conditions is probably of little or no value.  Mind you, depending on the assignment, the homework might have been of little or no value anyway, but that is another matter.

At Woodside, as elsewhere, students’ use of technology is not uniform. Mr. Reilly, the principal, says their choices tend to reflect their personalities. Social butterflies tend to be heavy texters and Facebook users. Students who are less social might escape into games, while drifters or those prone to procrastination, like Vishal, might surf the Web or watch videos . . . .  “The technology amplifies whoever you are,” Mr. Reilly says.

Interesting and important point that isn’t noted frequently enough.  Every personality type is a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses.  What is being amplified by the technology? The examples given in the article are not exactly encouraging:

For some, the amplification is intense. Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time . . .

Some shyer students do not socialize through technology — they recede into it. Ramon Ochoa-Lopez, 14, an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends . . . Escaping into games can also salve teenagers’ age-old desire for some control in their chaotic lives. “It’s a way for me to separate myself,” Ramon says. “If there’s an argument between my mom and one of my brothers, I’ll just go to my room and start playing video games and escape.”

I’m going to wrap up this first post on the article by suggesting that parents often miss the point on this issue, but students can be quite introspective about the really significant dynamic.

Parent missing the point:

“If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world.”

Insightful students who know what is really going on:

“Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it.”

“Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”

Follow up post:  “Second Thoughts on “Growing Up Digital”

5 thoughts on “Reflections on “Growing Up Digital”

  1. EXcellent post! I look forward to following this exploration. An example of how this topic moves into the parenting of post-secondary kids and parents: I have a 20 year old who is, I think, both typical and well-educated, ie, he is both digital and print literate. BUT he is frenetic in his focusing; for example, carrying on a Skype conversation with me while facebook messaging his classmates in London or his pal in Cambodia. The key-clacking while talking DRIVES ME NUTS!! I want to scream “not all interaction is equal or worthwhile.” I fear he is moving into adulthood without ever developing that sense of deep satisfaction that comes from being deeply connected–with people, the present, an idea, a project. I am hoping that reading and thinking through your pieces will give me a handle by which he and I can discuss my concerns.

    1. Thanks, I hope it does. There is something more than a typical generation gap at work here. I want to be careful not to overstate the case too badly, but we are probably in the middle of one of those significant epochal shifts in culture out of which emerges a new personality type or way of experiencing the world. In an influential little book, Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong argued that the introduction of writing, and later printing and electronic media, reordered human consciousness in significant ways. The digital revolution will probably have analogous consequences. Being aware of the consequences of previous media revolutions at least puts in a position to reflect, to some degree, on the one we are experiencing.

  2. Hi this was a thoughtful read of this article, which as you say is nothing new.

    The one point at which I mildly disagree–and it’s mostly just a matter of emphasis, as I see that you are trying to be careful not to be too Chicken Little about it– is that “kids have always had distractions” is something that is said just to comfort oneself. I make that argument all the time, and I also make the argument that there is nothing about electronic media that doesn’t already amplify extant tendencies in man.

    I didn’t text in school but we wrote letters and notes to each other CONSTANTLY. In fact some of us started a notebook that we just passed around from girl to girl and we wrote in it. We were always in trouble. Ironically, those of us who used the notebook were some of the better students. We. Were. Bored.

    But I don’t say that to dismiss the dangers in technology–just to remind us that there are off buttons on these devices, and that enforcing limits is a parents job. Whether it be the pac man that goes gonk gonk gonk on wafers that look like dashes on Atari 2600, or on the internet, reading, writing and interacting.

    I make that comparison to raise what I think is a key point: that compared to other distractions we’ve had in the more nascent stages of the electronic media revolution, is the potential for mind widening, the sharpening of reading and writing skills, and expanding one’s horizons are ENORMOUS and we should be as excited by that as we are as fearful as the other darker sides of it.

    I’m not exactly a digital native being born in 1973, but i remember wasting enormous amount of time killing dragons that looked like ducks as a cursors with an arrow that was supposed to be a sword, and playing things like combat and pong, which were hardly as stimulating as texting, arguing, reading and interacting on the internet.

    Ong was a student of McLuhan. I don’t know him as well as I know McLuhan, but something people don’t realize is that he thought what would become the Internet was a perfect environment for the anti-Christ to form. There is a sort of millenarian subtext in everything he wrote and I imagine Ong may have inherited some of that. They are correct about the re-ordering of consciousness. So much so that McLuhan has rightly earned the title of prophet. However, I sort of object to this idea that infuses his work, we are devolving down to anti-Christ, an idea which is a sort of anti-Christ in itself. It’s just the flip side of the idea that we are progressing toward the ubermensch.

    The irony is that most people in the mainstream think McLuhan was a FAN of electronic media!

    Sorry I’m a bit rambly rambly on the internet. Nice to “meet” you.

    1. No worries, great ramblings. I agree, there is great potential for mind widening through our digital technologies. I tend to think we are in a better position to take advantage of those when we have a little bit of a critical distance, so these are my efforts to create that distance. My sense is that we are probably dealing with a matter of emphasis here as you say.

      Agreed on McLuhan, I’ve got a passage from an interview on here somewhere in which he makes it pretty explicit that he views understanding as a form of resistance. Tom Wolfe has an essay on McLuhan that I believe is the introduction to Understanding Me in which he identifies Teilhard de Chardin as a significant influence on McLuhan, but de Chardin does seem to have had a much more sanguine take on the emerging forms of consciousness.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. Great blog on your end as well. I happen to be going through both Graham Greene (End of the Affair) and Chesterton on Aquinas at the moment. Not sure if it would be helpful, but critical theorist Slavoj Zizek has written a some interesting stuff, from a materialist perspective, on Chesterton. It’s sort of scattered through his books though as far as I can tell.

  3. Oh thanks for that tip, Michael, re: Zizek. I’m currently working on a book about Chesterton and that might come in handy–I’ve added a note to my working biblio.

    On McLuhan–“understanding as resistance” is of course key–and again it’s a matter of emphasis and degree. I fear the Internet like I fear any powerful thing–like the A-Bomb and Glenn Beck–but the Internet is more like Glenn Beck than the A-Bomb. Which is to say the A-Bomb is an objectively evil thing (though nuclear fission is not) but Glenn Beck isn’t objectively evil (though I suppose that’s a matter of debate).

    It isn’t so much, either, that I disagree with everything that Glenn Beck has to say, but, like Oprah the amount of power he has to influence is disconcerting. It matters little whether that influence is “for the good” or “for evil” So that’s where I share the McLuhan mistrust.

    Thanks also for that “resistance through understanding”–very pithy and pith isn’t my strong suit. That is precisely what his work is–I always thought of it more as resisting value judgments in critical work so that the reader can make her own decisions. But that is his entire model.

    It does seem that at least in some blacker moods, he didn’t have faith in the power of understanding to resist enough, or perhaps, in the power of most people to understand, and I don’t quite share that pessimism.

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