At age 4, my little girl and a friend played on the beach until exhaustion began to etch away at their good moods. When they began to tousle, I offered a story as a pleasant distraction before we packed up. My child, very used to the pleasures of a good story, immediately went still to focus on my tale. The other girl tried to do the same, but soon began to fidget away until I knew I’d lost her.
This kind of distraction wasn’t really something that happened in my household, but I’d seen it before with other young children my daughter knew. A common theme was that those kids watched a good deal of TV and played with computers (added together it’s called “screen-time”), while my kids and some of their other friends didn’t. Based on this purely anecdotal and possibly biased information, I had my suspicions.
I wondered if my stories of knights and fairies couldn’t compete with the flashing colors and fast edits of children’s media. I began to write about the idea that perhaps we were over-entertaining our kids. The effects of this, I imagined, would be children with ever-decreasing attention spans and perseverance: a nation of ADD, immediate-gratification-obsessed young adults. In fact, as a part-time college teacher, I’d seen the shift for myself in my incoming students. More and more they seemed to need short bite-sized pieces of highly entertaining visual display, at the same time, they were less and less willing to stay focused and come up with answers that might be hard to solve.
Now my suspicions have been examined among teachers in two new research projects, as reported by The New York Times. According to the Times, the studies show that, “There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.” One study was conducted by the Pew Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center that focuses on technology-related research. The other is from a San Francisco non-profit that advises parents about media issues, called Common Sense Media. According to their Vicky Rideout, media use among children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 has grown so fast that they on average spend twice as much time with screens each year as they spend in school.
It’s important to remember that these findings show the subjective opinions of teachers, rather than the hard data that would come from studying the kids themselves. But as a preliminary finding on the subject, I have to say I’d take the teachers word for it.
In the Times, Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, admits the studies’ results could alternately show “that the education system must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn, a point that some teachers brought up in focus groups themselves.” But young and old, the nearly 90 percent of the teachers said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
I’m willing to consider that we grown-ups can often be the last to change with the times. If there’s a good way to educate a generation raised on so much media, then I’m all for it. But what about the other finding, the one that has to do with perseverance? This is what the teachers in the interviews called the “Wikipedia problem.” I’ve seen it too: If students can’t get an answer almost instantly, they assume it’s a lost cause. To this teacher, that kind of tenacious work ethic seems severely in decline. In fact, even if I tell them to base a presentation on the text and not Wikipedia, I continually get the same definitions right from the web, most of which are frustratingly inaccurate for the course I’m teaching (Visual Language and Culture).
Movies like “Race to Nowhere” have addressed some of these same issues while pointing to slightly different causes. That film blames the increase in route testing and incredible rise of busy-work homework, which rob kids of critical thinking skills. I’m sure others who’ve noticed the trends in our youngest generations may have different theories. I can’t pretend to know the answers. But I’ve seen the same changes these thinkers point to and I’m glad to see they’re being examined.
As a parent, I can say that our kids still seem to me just as bright, energetic and ready to learn as any I’ve known in all my years in childcare and education—and it’s for this reason, if nothing else, that we have to do right by them and help them grow as the world speeds around them at an ever-increasing pace.