Growing up digital and distracted

Young people today are wired for distraction, concludes a New York Times story.

Vishal Singh, a 17-year-old student at Woodside High in Silicon Valley, gets through only 43 pages of his summer reading because he’s busy surfing Facebook and YouTube and making digital videos.  On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

Trying to fight wired with wired, Principal David Reilly “has asked teachers to build Web sites to communicate with students, introduced popular classes on using digital tools to record music, secured funding for iPads to teach Mandarin and obtained $3 million in grants for a multimedia center.”

Instead of skaters, jocks and band geeks, students split into texters and gamers, “Facebook addict and YouTube potato,” write the Times.

Allison Miller, 14, sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month, her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying.

. . . But this proficiency comes at a cost: she blames multitasking for the three B’s on her recent progress report.

“I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.’ ”

Shy students escape into the world of video games.

Ramon Ochoa-Lopez, 14, an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school.

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

Yes, it’s the same Woodside High as in Waiting for Superman.

About Joanne


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the article, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I’d say that the digital addiction begins in early childhood, when so much of the brain is being ‘wired.’ Personally, I blame Sesame Street. Television and electronic toys take the active role away from children and conditions children to expect immediate rewards and frequent stimulation.

    My 1 year old daughter will be receiving blocks and Fisher Price Little People for Christmas… my wife and I have decided to avoid electronic toys entirely with the exception of the occasional noise or movement. She won’t be receiving a cell phone until she can drive, nor will she have a laptop or computer in her room. Or at least that’s what we plan… now whether years of whining, complaining, and feeling guilty soften our stance, I don’t know.

  2. 75% of teens between the ages of 13-17 carry cell phones. That is a staggering statistic for K-12 schools. Most schools today have a “no cell phone” policy but when you ask the school administrators about how they regulate the use of cell phones, almost all of them recognize it’s a policy that is difficult if not impossible to enforce. Many of the IT Directors and CIOs we work with have seen a significant jump in the past year in how many Wifi-enabled smart phones (mostly iPhones and Android Phones) that have been trying to attach to the school wireless network. This is further proof that stopping the presence of cell phones in schools isn’t possible. So, if you can’t stop it, why not use cell phones as a platform for interactive learning in the classroom?

    We see a few big challenges with using them as a learning device at this point:

    1) General Availability- yes, most students have phones, and the trend is towards smart phones with more processing power than we had in PC’s just a few years ago. But many students still carry flip phones, or other phones with no internet access. It would be difficult to use a platform that a large % of the students don’t have yet.

    2) Web Content Filtering- the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) states that internet access being provided in K-12 schools use web filtering to protect the students from bad content. Allowing student owned cell phones to access the web on the cell phone provider networks would bypass the web filtering services present on the school wireless network. This is the biggest limitation to using cell phones inside the classrooms that we see.

    3) The Distraction Issue- those opposed to cell phone use in the classroom point towards the fact that the average teen sends and receives 3,339 texts per month. That’s 6 text messages per hour awake or nearly 50 text messages during a normal school day. If schools promoted or allow cell phone use in the classroom, how do you control what the students are doing on their phones?

    Many progressive teachers like Vicky Davis are making the case for cell phone use in schools. We believe the use of cell phones and mobile devices can be a great tool and are critical to the development of our learning systems. However, these challenges must be addressed in order to allow for a safe and effective learning environment for students.

  3. SuperSub- Fantastic ideas.

    Unfortunately for classroom teachers, this new kind of “wiring” doesn’t exactly line up with classrooms that only receive enough funding for class sets of textbooks as the main instructional tool.

    The implication of SuperSub’s post is that in order to prevent raising a generation that cannot stay on task, parents need to be more active in the raising of their children. That means less pacifying through video games and television. This seems sensible.

    As for classroom teachers, what are some suggestions for dealing with this when parents don’t hand out blocks and Fisher Price Little People? They will be the ones expected to “handle” the students with extreme ADD. Never mind the choices made over the previous decade when various forms of entertainment were chosen to fill the child’s day.

  4. Nick-
    I’m considering turning my science classroom into a semi-Luddite experiment, eschewing digital projection, computer assignments, and anything else that isn’t necessary to to teach lab skills. I’ll resort to giving good old-fashioned notes on the board and expect students to copy them word-for-word in their notebooks. I’ll only use tech for lesson design (making worksheets and labs) and necessary non-instructional activities (attendance and grading). I’ve already talked to the school librarian about my students doing a paper and only being able to use text resources, and she’s giddy about the thought.
    Of course, this may run afoul of the new push by the Asst. Superintendent, an ex-science teacher who is pushing technology as the future of education. Oh, and I’m non-tenured. Maybe I’ll rethink my plans after all.

  5. And those horseless carriages! They go too fast! And telegraphs have just destroyed the handwritten letter! And you build character when you chop wood to cook dinner!

    This is just fogeyism and handwringing.

    My dad, a WWII vet, had ADD–he practically flickered. And he grew up without TV, computers, etc. Was it the radio waves, coming in over his crystal set?

    ADD/ADHD is genetic. Exposure to Guitar Hero won’t warp your kid’s chromosomes.

  6. Chartermom says:

    SuperSub while I agree that Sesame Street TV and the like doesn’t help the situation, I’ve also discovered that limiting kids to more traditional toys when they are younger doesn’t necessarily prevent the multi-task electronic focus when they are teens. When my boys were small they didn’t have much in the way of electronic toys and neither did their daycare. We read a lot at home (and at their daycare) and the TV watching we did at home was generally things like Wild Discovery rather than the rapid fire educational children’s shows. They did use the computer some but back then software for young children was pretty basic and again it was limited. (Your challenges today will be greater than mine in the late 90’s).

    Their elementary school used a “Back to Basics’ approach that didn’t rely on a lot of computer interaction (the budget for computers wasn’t there) and their middle school was limited technologically too. We delayed the introduction of video games into the house until they were middle school aged.

    Yet today I have two high schoolers who hate to read and multi-task almost constantly. One is a text and chat fiend while the other texts well below average but is much more likely to be found on You Tube (however neither spends more than a few minutes a week on the phone vs the hours I spent on the phone at their age. Of course that may be a boy/girl thing). Both are athletes so they do stay active.

    Perhaps I could have limited their tech time more when they were middle schoolers but I would have done so at the expense of their social integration (as someone who suffered through high school as a social misfit, I’m loathe to do that). I also make them pay for anything beyond the basic voice (for safety reasons) for their cell phone use. But they willingly spend their own money for texting and data.

    However I realized as I began to write this that I had read the article and formulated my thoughts on the subject while at the same time participating in a conference call……………so maybe the kids aren’t so different after all. Or maybe we’re becoming like our kids………..

  7. “Kids these days! Harrumph!”

  8. Somewhat off topic, but I am always interested in the push to use technology in science courses in high school, when in college the push (from faculty) has been in the opposite direction. In the last couple of years, we hired new faculty to teach organic chemistry and math, but women in their late twenties. Both use only the chalkboard for lecture — no powerpoint or other technology — and all the folks we interviewed for both positions had the same basic orientation — chalkboard for mock lectures and powerpoint for research talks.

  9. Stuart Buck says:

    Same Woodside High as in “Waiting for Superman”?

  10. KateC –
    We’re not necessarily talking about ADD and ADHD – just basic conditioning that trains the human mind to focus solely upon immediate gratification. That being said, the increase in children’s access to technology has been suggested (but not proven) as a reason for the significant increase in diagnoses… in addition to other reasons such as increased awareness and diagnosis ‘popularity.’

    Chartermom –
    While I did focus on early childhood as an extension of the original article’s intent, I did not mean to imply that once elementary school was over everything would be sunny. The addiction to technology has as much to do with teaching responsibility as anything else. There is no such thing as a truly successful multi-tasker, the more an average person has to focus on, the worse they will do on any given task. Some individuals just have a higher tolerance, perhaps due to IQ or organizational skills.

  11. There may be a technical solution to the texting problem.  Schools can install micro-cell transceivers, which will cause all nearby phones to go through them.  These micro-cells can filter, block or time-shift web surfing and text messages.

    Waiting to deliver text messages until passing time would get rid of a lot of the problems with in-class use, no?

  12. Or the school could start to install grounded chicken wire in its exterior walls and roof…

  13. Or schools could catch up to technology and find ways to make students engage. It’s not just ADD/ADHD, it’s that teachers are worried about penmanship and footnotes, when students are about 40 years ahead.

  14. sorry, katec, but penmanship DID go out the window a long time ago. elementary school teachers do not spend a lot of time on it, because they know students will be doing the majority of their written assignments on a keyboard. so, good try on the assumption, but it was a fail. (footnotes, however, are still important — even though text messages do not use them, or blogs or any pop media — many relevant and educational texts still DO use them.)

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s not that there’s some mysterious brain rewiring going on, and it’s not that the technology is bad.

    What is going on is this: concentration and extended focus is, simply put, a skill. We all know that skills need to be practiced to be developed. One can only practice what one experiences. Kids don’t experience any concentration or extended focus because they’re constantly being interrupted and distracted.

    If it is desired that children should read whole books, then the custodial powers must bring it about that the children practice the skill by experiencing situations in which they exercise extended concentration and focus, much as if it were desired that a child should become a star soccer player the custodial powers would see to it that several hours a week were spent kicking a ball down a field.

    It’s a particularly useful skill, because much excellent work upon which modern society depends requires concentration and focus.

    Teachers can no longer count on it being practiced outside the home. Therefore, teachers should start to think of ways for it to be practiced within the classroom, in the limited time available. Fair? Not to the teachers. But who said life was fair?

    Of course, dealing with that is a separate skill.

  16. I’m concerned about this:

    To Ms. Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.

    She teaches English IV. This isn’t a group of students fresh out of middle school.

    “Teachers can no longer count on it [concentration and focus] being practiced outside the home. Therefore, teachers should start to think of ways for it to be practiced within the classroom, in the limited time available.

    Reading a sentence, paragraph or page once a day doesn’t teach concentration and focus. Is this properly a problem of technology, though, or a problem in the system of incentives and controls we (the public) have allowed in our schools and colleges?

    It would be a good thing if the educational world abandoned the idea that all high school students should, or are able to, attend college. If college acceptance rates suddenly dropped, the parents might pay attention. If college loans and scholarships were not available to D or C students, students might have a reason to study. If college acceptance has very little connection to high school performance, it’s not worth policing one’s high school student.

    As long as I’m recasting the world, I’d also require that parents (or, in college, whoever helps pay the bills) always have access to students’ report cards, no matter how old the students are. A parent, by law, has no right to see an 18 year-old student’s report cards, unless that student agrees in writing to allow his parents to receive a copy.

  17. Penmanship matters. Grammar also matters. An essay typed on a computer will be automatically formatted and spell-checked. Some programs will perform a grammar check (however poorly). A student who writes an essay without these crutches must plan

    ahead. (Little format joke there.)

    Penmanship matters greatly in school. I know teachers claim to think it doesn’t, but they do mark down for work which is 1) short, 2) incomplete, and 3) illegible. Poor penmanship also leads to poor math grades. If you haven’t heard, US classrooms now require students to “show your work.”

    We are currently working on our youngest child’s penmanship. As far as we can tell, it wasn’t taught. Oh, it was “presented,” but the necessary practice time was devoted to useless computer exercises. This is not a generation which needs to practice the skill of using a mouse. Most computer systems are designed to be easy to use, because experience has shown that users do not Read the Manual.

  18. I wonder if this kind of nonsense is the reason why school districts bring up the debate of school start times in high school every year.

    It’s amazing the number of parents who complain they can’t get their kid out of bed in the morning, or they have trouble falling asleep at a reasonable hour (say between 10 and 11 pm).

    I would be willing to bet that the amount of electronic distractions in their bedrooms (ipod, cell phone/texting, computers, stereo, TV set, etc) combined with the overload of sugar and/or caffeine along with the massive amounts of junk food they stuff into their mouths after dinner probably has a lot more to do with them not getting a good night’s sleep or getting to sleep at a decent hour than any school start time does.

    One other thing, what happens when the kid leaves high school and gets a job where the boss expects them to be there at 7:00AM (it’s not like high school, you don’t show up enough times, you get fired)?

  19. KateC, schools have mostly discarded handwriting instruction. Now, of course, it turns out that handwriting is important:

  20. Yeah, because the only reason a 16 yr old might not want to read Cat’s Cradle is because his brain has been influenced by Twitter and Facebook.

    Do any of you actually REMEMBER reading Cat’s Cradle? Wasn’t it about as sense-making and linear as the web?

    Assuredly, more tech can mean more problems. But how about we admit that most 16 yr olds are more interested in potential dates, games, sports, and other recreational activities than they are in homework?

    Stop acting like everyone is a victim. Instead, admit the child’s, parents’, and teachers’ culpability. You want kids to read? Create a culture where the expectation is that they read. It might be difficult, but it’s really that simple.

  21. John Thacker says:

    But making digital videos takes hours and hours of concentration, as the article itself mentions. Mr. Singh is perfectly capable of staying focused on one task, he simply chooses to focus on a task other than schoolwork.

  22. John –
    Agreed. He enjoys filmmaking and places a value on it. On the other hand, he places little to no value on the rest of school. He lacks discipline, and his parents can be faulted for that.

  23. Roger Sweeny says:

    We believe the use of cell phones and mobile devices can be a great tool and are critical to the development of our learning systems.

    Is there anything behind that belief other than, “Most kids have cell phones and use them a lot, so in a just universe they would make a great tool for education”?