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

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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."

Kids' Brains and Technology

As for the brain science, the author should have told the other side of the story. During extended adolescence (age 8-18) a third of the brain gets wired, and how you spend your time is the main factor determining the building of the brain. Consider the typical teenage media diet. Back in the late 1960s, the teenage Baby Boomer in the United States watched an average of over 22 hours of television each week. They were passive viewers; they took what they were given, and when the commercials came, they might even have watched them. Net Geners watch less television than their parents do, and they watch it differently. A Net Gener is more likely to turn on the computer and simultaneously interact in several different windows, talk on the telephone, listen to music, do homework, read a magazine, and watch television. TV has become like background Muzak for them.

Rather than creating dysfunctional brains that can't focus, the evidence is just as strong that experience being "bathed in bits" is pushing the human brain beyond conventional capacity limitations. So-called multitasking may in fact result from better switching abilities and better active working memory. Young people are likely developing brains that are more appropriate for our fast paced, complex world.

And as for kids getting lost in virtual worlds and losing their social skills? There is no evidence that this is causing a decline in face-to-face communication. Time spent online is not coming at the expense of less time hanging out with friends; it's less time watching television.

To be sure, there is much we don't know about the brain. In fact we've learned more in the last 7 years than in all of history. But some things are becoming clear. The research shows that the brain can change throughout life as it responds to environmental influences. Children's brains can change to a greater degree than adult ones can, but the adult brain can and does change. "Neuroscience has shown that, in the most literal sense, the events of our lives get etched in the very physical structure and the activities of the brain," states Dr. Stan Kutcher, an internationally renowned expert on adolescent mental health, who with his son Matthew, a Net Gen neuroscientist, conducted a study measuring the effect of digital technology on human brain development for the nGenera research program.1

By the time Net Generation kids reach their twenties, the typical Net Gener has spent over 20,000 hours on the Internet and over 10,000 hours playing video games of some kind.2 This immersion is taking place at a time when their brains are particularly sensitive to outside influences -- adolescence and their teenage years. Recent studies show that although total brain volume is largely unchanged after age 6, the brain continues to undergo significant structural remodeling throughout the adolescent years and into early adult life. The studies show that brain regions associated with attention, evaluation of rewards, emotional intelligence, impulse control, and goal-directed behavior all change significantly between age 12 and 24. These neurological changes during adolescence may explain, in part, why many teenagers appear to be disorganized, have poor impulse control, and have difficulty making long-term plans.

Research done at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) documented some of the physical changes that take place in the brain between the ages of 4 and 20. It turns out that the volume of nerve cells in the frontal and parietal lobes, which are thought to be responsible for goal-directed behavior and other higher functions, peaks at age 12.3 How can that be? NIMH researchers suggest that after age 12, the brain starts pruning, reducing connections among brain cells. Say, for example, you learned a language from your mother but stopped using it when you started speaking English. The pathways needed to speak your mother's language will die off, while the other neural pathways associated with speaking English will get stronger. In other words, you use it or you lose it. This pruning period lasts until about age 20.

Some studies suggest that the teen brain processes, operates, and functions differently than the brain of an adult. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore of University College London conducted a series of studies in which participants were asked to answer hypothetical questions while their brain activity was monitored by MRI imaging. When the question was an impersonal one, the teens, whose average age was 15, used the same parts of their brain to answer as did the 28-year-old adults. But when they were asked a question like "You are at the cinema and have trouble seeing the screen. Do you move to another seat?" the teens used different parts of their brain to answer.4 As this evidence suggests, the teen brain itself -- not just our understanding of it -- is still a work in progress.

Of course an unchecked obsession with video games, or anything else for that matter is not healthy for a young person. But that's only one side of the story. Video games can be enormously positive. They can teach young people to work in teams. As Generation X came of age, the arcade video games available to them were largely about competition: scores were kept, and there tended to be a winner for every loser. In contrast, popular video games today highlight adventure and exploring what is around the corner, often in real time. They place extraordinary demands on multidimensional visual-spatial skills; enhance abilities for divided attention;5 and encourage players to discover rules through observation, trial and error, and hypothesis testing.6 They often require cooperation with opponents to defeat a common enemy offering problems to be solved collaboratively and creatively, and acting in a global community -- signifying the movement of the game-playing experience to being social rather than a solitary activity.

Playing online games can be good for your mind, according to Steven Johnson, writing in Everything Bad Is Good for You: "Games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize."7. Some of the world's leading thinkers in this field agree. When James Gee, a teacher and theoretical linguist, started playing video games at age 60, he realized he had to think in a new way. To excel at a video game you have to learn skills that are crucial for any learning experience, such as understanding design principles, making choices, practicing, and discovering.8

Matthew Myers, for instance, is a 21-year-old student at Southern Methodist University. He's the captain of his wrestling team, a church youth leader, and president of his dorm. He's also second-in-command in his guild, and every week he spends a few hours playing World o Warcraft. "I'm taking a class on managing people and strategy," he says. "I can take all the lessons that I learn in class and apply them to my guild." He continues to note that managing a group of 40-plus players is a complex job. There are new players to recruit and current guild members who need help raising their skill levels as they pursue quests and run raids.

What about the overall effect of spending so much time in front of a screen -- not a TV but an interactive screen? Does the medium affect the way we absorb the information? Back in the 1950s, Marshall McLuhan argued that it does. The way we receive information -- by reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to someone on the telephone -- has a big impact on the brain, and that impact is even more important than the actual content of the message. In other words, McLuhan said in his famous but somewhat oblique line, "the medium is the message."

The great Toronto thinker did not, of course, have the benefit of modern brain scans. So, Erica Michael and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University did a brain scan to test McLuhan's hypothesis. It turned out that he was right: the brain constructs the message differently for reading and listening. "Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does," say Michael and Just. "A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper."

You'd expect, then, that information absorbed on the Internet would have a different impact than information obtained by reading the newspaper. A 2006 study of Net Geners certainly suggests it does. Researchers played the same newscast in four different ways -- as a traditional radio newscast, as an online newscast played with one click, as an interactive Webcast where you click to get each news item, and as a Webcast that included links for details. Net Geners remembered less from the traditional newscasts -- told from beginning to end -- than they did from the interactive versions that gave them a chance to click to hear the news, or learn more details.9

1. Kutcher and Kutcher, "Understanding Differences of a Cognitive and Neurological Kind," 4

2. Marc Prensky, Digital Game-Based Learning, 1st ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

3. Jay N. Giedd et al., "Brain Development during Childhood and Adolescence: A Longitudinal MRI Study," Nature Neuroscience, vol. 2, 1999, 861-63, www.nature.com.

4. Miranda Hitti and Louise Chang, M.D., "Teen Brain: It's All About Me," WebMD Medical News, www.ivorweiner.com, May 5, 2008.

5. Patricia Marks Greenfield et al., "Action Video Games and Informal Education: Effects on Strategies for Dividing Visual Attention," Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 15, 1994, 105-23, h.

6. Ibid., Prensky, Digital Game Based Learning (No page number necessary, still summarizing)

7. Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You, New York: Riverhead, 2005

8. James Paul Gee, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, 1st ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

9. Hesham M. Mesbah, "The Impact of Linear vs. Non-linear Listening to Radio News on Recall and Comprehension," Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 13, no. 2, December 2006, 187-200, www.leaonline.com.

Multitasking: Are Net Geners Better at Switching Attention?

Media multitasking is a quintessential characteristic of the Net Generation brain. Three out of every four Net Gen students claim to instant message while doing their homework.10 Moreover, in a national study of over 2,000 young people, aged 8 to 18, researchers found that participants were able to squeeze the equivalent of 8.5 hours of electronic media into 6 chronological hours because of multitasking.11 Most parents can't understand it. Boomers usually have trouble focusing on a complicated task if the TV is on, the music is cranked up, and friends are checking in every few minutes. Are Net Geners any better at it than boomers are? Have they learned to be top guns of multitasking?

When I look at my own children, their friends, and legions of other Net Geners, this is what I see: They're faster than I am at switching tasks, and better than I am at blocking out background noise. They can work effectively with music playing and news coming in from Facebook. They can keep up their social networks while they concentrate on work; they seem to need this to feel comfortable. I think they've learned to live in a world where they're bombarded with information, so that they can block out the TV or other distractions while they focus on the task at hand.

Back in 1992, P. David Pearson, a comprehension theorist at the University of Illinois, set forth the skills that a good reader uses to understand a text. The good reader activates prior knowledge, makes sure she understands what she's reading and reads it again if necessary, makes inferences, and synthesizes or summarizes what she's learned. It turns out that searching for information on the Internet requires those same skills -- and then some -- according to a study in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.12

Searching for information on the Internet is obviously a different exercise than reading a book. You read or scan until you have found what you wanted, and then you click on a keyword to hunt for more information. Unlike the journey you take when you read a book, no one is holding your hand or serving as your guide. You're on your own. But it requires the same skills you need to read a book -- plus the ability to scan, navigate, analyze whether information is pertinent, synthesize, and remember what question you're trying to answer as you click on the links. The RAND Reading Study Group put it this way in 2002: "Accessing the Internet makes large demands on the individuals' literacy skills; in some cases, this new technology requires readers to have novel literacy skills."13

Kids Aren't Paying Attention in School?

So why do some Net Geners seem to have attention deficit disorder in class? Isn't it possible that the answer is because they're bored -- both with the slow pace and with the content of the lecture? Researcher Marc Prensky thinks so. "Their attention spans are not short for games, for example, or for music, or rollerblading, or for spending time on the Internet, or anything else that actually interests them," he writes. "It isn't that they can't pay attention, they just choose not to."14

Donald Leu, co-director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut, has found that the skills needed for effective reading of books are different from those you need to read effectively online. To read online, you need all the skills of the off-line reader-plus the ability to search, locate information, and evaluate how pertinent or credible it is. You have to remember what you're looking for -- what question you're trying to answer -- so you don't get lost in the morass of information. You have to synthesize what you're learning from multiple sources, and usually communicate your findings to someone else. Online, you are creating your own narrative, instead of following the writer's journey. These are different experiences, Leu says. His research shows that conventional text readers are not always good online readers. Sometimes kids who are poor readers of textbooks turn out to be among the top performers in terms of online search and reading skills.

The old model of pedagogy is what I call broadcast learning. It was a one-size-fits-all one-way model designed for the Industrial Age when industry needed workers who did what they were told. The teacher was the sage, and he or she was supposed to deliver knowledge to the grateful students who were expected to write down the sage's words and deliver it back to them, often word for word, in exams if they wanted to score an A.

In the old model, the teacher is the broadcaster, sending information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. It goes like this: I'm a teacher (or professor) and I have knowledge. You're a student and you don't. Get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition build deeper cognitive structures so you can recall it to me when I test you. As I often tell educational audiences, the definition of a lecture is the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.

So is it any surprise that teacher-broadcasters and TV broadcasters are both losing their audience? Kids who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV -- or a teacher -- doesn't appeal to this generation. But unlike the entertainment world, the educational establishment doesn't offer enough alternatives to the one-way broadcast.

If schools were a business that was routinely losing one-third of its customers -- and half in some places -- I suspect the board of directors would insist on some fundamental changes, or simply fire the CEO. So why doesn't the school system do what some of the leading customer-faced companies are doing today? Focus on the customer, or in this case, the student. It sounds simple, but as many companies have found, focusing on the customer requires a deep change throughout the organization. This means changing the relationship between student and teacher in the learning process.

Films like Waiting for "Superman" don't help much. They blame teachers and suggest that charter schools are the answer, when what's needed is an entirely new model of pedagogy and educational modus operandi. To focus on the student, teachers have to step off the stage and start listening and conversing instead of just lecturing. In other words, they have to abandon their broadcast style and adopt an interactive one. Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the teacher's information. Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the school. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles.

Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change, such as Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says the education model has to change to suit this generation of students. Smart but impatient, they like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures. While some educators view this as pandering to a generation, Sweeney is firm: "They want to learn, but they want to learn only from what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them."

The Kids Are All Right

Over my career, I have listened to thousands of people make dire predictions about what technology will do to young brains. TV was supposed to melt their minds. Video games would turn them into zombies. It hasn't happened. So I'm skeptical when I read that digital immersion is making kids stupid. And I've yet to see any convincing evidence.

The Times article was just the latest in litany of pieces. Take Mark Bauerlein, the English professor who wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The premise of his book is that youth today are stupider than any preceding generation because they spend so much time immersed in digital technology, especially the Internet. But even Bauerlein has to admit that raw IQ scores have been going up three points a decade since World War II, and that screentime's ability to improve certain visual processing skills may have played a role in the rise in recent years.15 After noting that inconvenient fact, the professor acknowledges that Net Geners may be "mentally agile" but says they are "culturally ignorant." They don't read the great works of literature, he complains, and their general knowledge is poor -- they suffer from what he calls "vigorous indiscriminate ignorance." So now he's arguing that they're not mentally slow, just ignorant. But are Net Geners any more ignorant than boomers were at their age? Again no evidence is provided.

The professor hunts for more evidence to support the grandstanding title of his book from school test scores. "No cohort in human history has opened such a fissure between its material conditions and its intellectual attainments," he thunders. "None has experienced so many technological enhancements and yielded so little mental progress." In other words, they should be doing better, presumably because of the Internet. So which is it? The Internet is a force for stupefication or enlightenment?

The Times piece ends with the story of Vishal, who after a long Sunday on his computer is finally getting to his homework at 11pm. But we learn that Vishal's time online was in fact editing his new film. Vishal is a budding film director! Sure, he should get to his homework earlier. But the reader is left wondering how Vishal's passion for his craft, and his laser-like focus on editing over a 12-hour period is somehow evidence that he has lost his intellect or his attention span.

Sure there are unknowns and challenges as this media revolution extends out into every aspect of human existence. And all of us need to better design our families and our own lives to ensure that this smaller world will be a better one for all of us.

But the evidence suggests that many young people today are using technology to become smarter and more capable than their parents ever could be; and, like Vishal, to accomplish important, perhaps great things. Rather than kids losing their attention spans there is a stronger case to be made that growing up digital is equipping today's youth with the mental skills, such as scanning and quick mental switching, that they'll need to deal with today's overflow of information. The superior performance for many of them, as evidence by university graduation rates show they know when they have to focus, just as the most intelligent members of my generation did. They may think and process information in a different way than most boomers do, but that doesn't stop them from coming up with brilliant insights, new models of doing business, new ways of collaborating; or, for that matter, creating a carefully edited film as a teenager.

Don Tapscott is the author of Growing Up Digital (1997) and Grown Up digital (2008) and most recently with Anthony D. Williams Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010).


10. Hesham M. Mesbah, "The Impact of Linear vs. Non-linear Listening to Radio News on Recall and Comprehension," Journal of Radio and Audio Media, vol. 13, no. 2, December 2006, 187-200, www.leaonline.com.

11. Donald F. Roberts et al., "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds," Kaiser Family Foundation Study, March 2005, www.kff.org.

12. Elizabeth Schmar-Dobler, "Reading on the Internet: The Link between Literacy and Technology," Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, September 2003, www.readingonline.org.

13. Catherine E. Snow and RAND Reading Study Group, Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D Program in Reading Comprehension, RAND Corporation, 2002.

14. Ibid., Prensky, Digital Game Based Learning

15. Steven Johnson, Everything Bad Is Good for You, New York: Riverhead, 2005. "Think of the cognitive labor--and play--that your average 10-year-old would have experienced outside school 100 years ago: reading books when they were available, playing with simple toys, improvising neighborhood games like stickball an kick the can, and most of all doing household chores--or even working as a child laborer. Compare that with the cultural and technological mastery of a 10-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching."

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