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New York Times Cover Story on "Growing Up Digital" Misses the Mark

Posted: 11/23/10 06:22 PM ET

The November 21 Sunday New York Times front-page story "Growing Up Digital" created quite a stir, with among other things more than 430 comments on the New York Times site within 48 hours.

As the author of the actual book Growing Up Digital, its recent sequel Grown Up Digital, the person who originally defined the Net Generation back in 1997 and the director of the biggest research projects to date on this generation, many people have asked me for my thoughts (which curiously were not solicited in the writing of the article).

In the article Matt Richel argues that the experience of growing up in the digital age is producing a generation that is "wired for distraction." Richel follows the life of a bright 17-year-old Vishal Singh who is behind on his studies and not doing well in school because he chooses to do activities on his computer over reading a book and doing his assignments. He is said to be typical of a new generation that is easily distracted, because "developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks -- and less able to sustain attention."

The article cites anecdotal evidence that teachers are having difficulty getting kids' attention. Unchecked use of digital devices "can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it." Multi-tasking is causing bad grades. Many kids, rather than socializing through technology "recede into it" often "escaping" into various media like video games. To make things worse "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."

Parents don't get it either. In fact some of them "wholly embrace computer use, even when it has no obvious educational benefit." Use of video games is keeping kids up at night. Kids aren't getting downtime. They are "becoming habituated to distraction and to switching tasks, not to focus." Some teachers have implemented group reading because "students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own."

4,000 words later the article ends with Vishad at 11 pm having wasted his entire Sunday on his computer, settling down to some homework.

It's a pretty bleak picture that would make any teacher and parent want to pull the plug. To be sure, technology can be a distraction. If students are not performing well in school it's the responsibility of parents and teachers to help them organize their lives for success. And of course kids need balance. If your son spends more time in solitary video game playing than hanging with his friends or doing his homework then corrective action is required.

However the Times piece is so clichéd and one-sided that it's more than misleading: it's dangerous. Anecdotes can be deceptive. Making the case that kids are not performing well is like shooting fish in a barrel. Jay Leno does it all the time. However while anecdotes and an occasional expert quote about how kids can't focus makes for a good read, the data speaks otherwise. And there are some very big issues being discussed in this piece, not just about technology and kids, but its role in the home, schools and society. And I worry that many parents and teachers might draw the wrong conclusion.

To begin, there is no actual evidence to support the view that this generation is distracted, performing poorly or otherwise less capable than previous generations. In fact the evidence suggests that on the whole, this is the smartest generation ever. IQ is up year over year for many years, university entrance exam scores are at an all time high and it has never been tougher to get into the best universities. Furthermore, volunteering amongst high school and university students is at an all time high and in the US the percentage of kids that are clean in high school -- i.e. they don't do drugs or alcohol -- is up year over year for 15 years. This is a generation about which we can be enormously hopeful.

Yes, the bottom tier is not performing well -- almost one-third of all students drop out of high school. But even with this group dragging mean scores down there is no noticeable decline in performance. National testing in the U.S. suggests that over the last decade or so, students have improved, especially at the Grade 4 and 8 level, while Grade 12 students have either stayed the same or improved slightly in writing, civics and history.

And when it comes to the poor performance of the bottom tier, blaming the Internet is like blaming the library for illiteracy. There are real problems to be addressed. According to a 2006 report by the Gates Foundation one-third of the dropouts left school to make money, and a significant number left to care for a parent or have a baby. Most in this group come from single parent families where the mom doesn't have time to talk to the kids let alone to work with them on their homework. Kids come to school hungry.

There are also huge cultural factors. The dropout problem is far bigger in inner city public schools than it is in rich white suburbs. While three-quarters of whites graduate, only about half of blacks and Hispanics do. Among rural youth of color, the high school dropout rate is even more alarming than among their urban counterparts. Proportionately, more Net Geners are failing to graduate from high school than any previous generation and test results for many young people are so awful that it has become cliché to say that the educational system in the United States is in crisis.

The sad truth, according to the Gates Foundation report, is that most dropouts could have made it. Nearly half who dropped out said classes were either not interesting or just plain boring. So perhaps the real issue is the gap between how Net Geners think and how most teachers teach. Net Geners are not content to sit mutely and listen to a teacher talk. Kids who have grown up digital expect to be able to respond, to have a conversation. They want a choice in their education, in terms of what they learn, when they learn it, where, and how. They want their education to be relevant to the real world, the one they live in. They want it to be interesting, even fun. Teachers may still think the old-fashioned lecture is important, but the kids don't, futurist Marc Prensky told me recently. He remembers one Australian principal who put it this way: "The teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the Internet is."


 

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