THE BLOG

Kids, Tech and Those Shrinking Attention Spans

02/28/2014 06:18 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014
  • Diana Graber Co-founder, CyberWise.org: No Grownup Left Behind! and Founder, CyberCivics.com
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Whenever I find myself at the front of a 7th grade classroom, I keep the title of this book in mind: Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire. This mantra serves to remind me that, short of actually lighting my hair on fire, a burning enthusiasm for the information I'm there to share is what's required to capture and hold the attention of this generation. After all, these kids have been raised in a world where access to information is instantaneous, and often entertaining, thanks to mobile technology.

We hear it all the time -- increased exposure to technology is rewiring our kids' brains, making it tougher to reach and teach them. A Pew Internet survey of nearly 2,500 teachers finds that 87% believe new technologies are creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans" and 64% say today's digital technologies "do more to distract students than to help them academically."

But before you wring your hands in despair or, more likely, get distracted away from this story by your own task switching tendencies, read on! These same teachers also say that the Internet and digital search tools have had a "mostly positive" impact on their students' research habits. In another study by Common Sense Media, teachers say that when it comes to finding information and multitasking, "students' use of entertainment media has helped rather than hurt them." That's because technology not only helps students find information more quickly and efficiently, it also improves their ability to switch between tasks more quickly.

Say what?

This conflicting data is a reminder that the world is changing. It's convenient for those of us who can remember a time when there were no distracting digital devices clamoring for our attention to place the blame for shortened attention spans squarely on the shoulders of technology. But that doesn't really get us anywhere, does it?

Fortunately, a lot of really smart people who were asked their views on "the impact of technology on children and youth," consider these changes to be largely positive and that they bode well for the future. For example, researcher danah boyd of Microsoft Research says,

Brains are being rewired--any shift in stimuli results in a rewiring... The techniques and mechanisms to engage in rapid-fire attention shifting will be extremely useful for the creative class whose job it is to integrate ideas; they relish opportunities to have stimuli that allow them to see things differently.

According to Cyberanthropologist and CEO of Geoloqi, Amber Case,

Memories are becoming hyperlinks to information triggered by keywords and URLs. We are becoming 'persistent paleontologists' of our own external memories, as our brains are storing the keywords to get back to those memories and not the full memories themselves.

Furthermore, William Schrader, a consultant who founded PSINet in the 1980s, states,

The youth of 2020 will enjoy cognitive ability far beyond our estimates today based not only on their ability to embrace ADHD as a tool but also by their ability to share immediately any information with colleagues/friends and/or family, selectively and rapidly.

In short, these experts believe that our resilient brains are wonderfully capable of adapting to changes in the environment, whether that change is a saber-toothed tiger or an iPod Touch. Sure, it might be true that kids are more challenging than ever to teach, and yes they waste a lot of time online (don't you?). But instead of lamenting the changes that technology has wrought upon the brains of our children, perhaps it's time to ask how the environment our kids learn in (i.e., school) can adapt to the world they live in, or how we can teach them the skills they need to thrive in this digital world, skills like:

  1. Balancing the time spent online with focused offline time.
  2. Finding and evaluating useful and reliable online information.

And so much more.

Unfortunately, critical skills like these are not being taught by most schools (or parents, for that matter). And that's too bad.

Because when it comes to teaching today's kids, the alternative -- lighting your hair or anything else on fire -- is no long term solution to the challenges and opportunities of shortened attention spans.