Your Brain Might Freeze That Way!

In a recent New York Times article, Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction, reporter Matt Richtel opens up a gold mine of frustrated parents, educators and brain researchers all blaming digital devices for distracting youth from their real jobs of getting good grades and doing exactly what they are told. I guess before radio cars TV phones computers young people always did their chores and homework and they NEVER got distracted. Right.

The obligatory human interest lead-in to the story: Vishal Singh, a soon-to-be high school senior, is initially portrayed as someone being led down the dark path of destruction by his wanton digital ways. He plays computer games for 10 hours a week (OMG), hasn't read an assigned book, and sometimes even updates his Facebook account at 2 a.m. This is obviously a life going down the drain.

In the modern-day equivalent of "your face might freeze that way," the article quotes brain researchers who claim that young brains are being permanently harmed by multi-tasking.

The same article that claims that youth can't pay attention to anything because of all the stimulation also portrays young Vishal Singh as someone deeply involved in digital film-making and storytelling. In fact, he gets As in those subjects and is pursuing it for college and career. He's also the on-call tech support and web designer for his family.

So which is it people, computers cause your brain to decay or not? Are you really claiming that technology and multi-tasking cause brain rot -- but only in things that are less interesting to you? I hardly think it's the computer that is both causing good grades and deep learning in subjects of interest, and bad grades in subjects this young man does not care as deeply about. Seriously, do I have to find a quote from Plato or Socrates complaining about how youth don't pay attention nowadays (and probably blaming it on newfangled stone tablets?)

After a few other examples of students who text, play video games or do other horrifying things like get Bs, the article revisits Vishal. He is editing video for a school project, meticulously crafting a few seconds to convey the precise feeling and tone that he wants. He doesn't check Facebook, he doesn't get distracted -- amazingly enough, his brain seems to function just fine. No sign of brain rot. But AHA! He is neglecting his other homework, Latin and an economics essay. The article comes to a remarkable conclusion -- that the difference is "interactivity." Sigh.

This is so obviously wrong that it's almost dumb. It's not about clicking on stuff, or even brains or computers, it's about interest and having an amazing tool at your fingertips. The computer unlocks the world in all its potential to anyone who cares to learn how to use it. It's a tool that amplifies your ability to dive deeply into things you are personally interested in. The great thing is, the computer is also the right tool for the student who is interested in Latin or economics.

Do I believe that youth should be free to do whatever they want with no limits or expectations? No, that's just a silly exaggeration. What I do believe that by using computers and technology, youth have extraordinary new access to communities of interest, expertise, creative potential and choices. And what I would like to see is that people stop blaming computers and vilifying youth just because they have their own unique interests and goals, and use the tools of the day to achieve them.