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Is Technology Wiring Your Child for Distraction?

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Is it possible that the constant stimulation from technology available to children today could be rewiring their brain in such a way that they become less able to focus and stay on task? This idea made front page news today in the New York Times.

The articles interviews a group of teens who are having trouble staying focused on schoolwork while facing constant temptation from texting, Facebook, YouTube, and the myriad of other technologies at their fingertips (often simultaneously). The kids interviewed for the report blame falling grades on their use of technology, noting that it zaps their time as well as their interest for the comparatively bland alternative of schoolwork. So that piqued my interest, given that just last week I was wondering in my blog post whether any research had been done on this very subject. The following studies were discussed in the article:

Computer time worse than TV
In a 2007 study conducted at the German Sport University in Cologne, researchers found that playing video games before bedtime led to significantly lower sleep quality and reduced ability to remember vocabulary words. TV watching only decreased sleep efficiency (ratio of time slept to time spent in bed). The researchers hypothesize that it is the stimulating nature of video games that leads to different results. Video games can induce emotional (e.g., frustration, surprise) and physiological changes (e.g., increased heart rate, adrenaline release) that television usually does not. I imagine Facebooking and texting could potentially have similar results, especially in the context of teens, but that was not tested.

The brain needs downtime
Studies in rats suggest that periods of rest are important in order for the brain to make new connections. When rats are allowed to explore unfamiliar areas, brain patterns show that persistent memory is only made after the rats take a break from exploration. Furthermore, recent imaging studies of the brain that show activity in major cross sections of the brain during rest periods have also supported the view that downtime enables the brain to synthesize information. And plenty of scientists are concerned about the apparent loss of downtime to the brain, although no reports were made of related research.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Not only are kids constantly stimulated, they are also multitasking. The kids interviewed for the Times article note doing homework while facebooking and texting. While not mentioned in the report, I have also read a study by UCLA that multi-tasking affects how you learn, making it more difficult to retrieve information learned.

Conclusion
The NY times report indicates that there is some evidence that technology has some negative effects related to the ability to learn. But is it really rewiring the growing brains of our children for distraction? I have not seen the proof yet. In fact, if you read the comments to the NY Times article, you will see that there are plenty of parents whose kids have thrived after significant exposure to technological distractions. Maybe it just comes down teaching our children the good old adage: everything in moderation……….

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