Posted by: structureofnews | November 23, 2010

Reefer Madness!

Updated 11/24

Remember Reefer Madness?  The 1938 film that chronicles the dangers teens are exposed to when they try pot – accidents, manslaughter, attempted rape and descent into madness.  Save the children!

If you liked that, you’ll love the recent New York Times piece about how the new wired world is affecting young people – for the worse, naturally:

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.

The main teen profiled, Vishal Singh, certainly is distracted – he prefers YouTube to reading, can’t finish his summer reading, and his grades suffer. Thank goodness he’s not also smoking marijuana, or he’d be in jail in no time.  It’s not that this is a bad story – and in fact, there is some interesting science in it, way down the page – but that it clearly frames the digital world as something to be viewed darkly.

As the father of a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old, I can attest to the natural capacity of the teen (and adult) brain to be distracted; the internet doesn’t help, but I’m sure parents for millenia have complained about young whippersnappers and their inability to keep their eye on the task at hand, whether slaying saber-tooth tigers or finishing geometry homework.

That’s not to say this story should be dismissed out of hand – as with the debate about whether the internet makes you stupid, there are serious issues here: The internet is unquestionably changing us (and our children).  The question is, how?  And can we answer that question without some level of hysteria?

The Times piece does cite some interesting research, albeit way at the back of the long story (presumably no internet-distracted kids will be reading to the end).

…recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.

Researchers say these studies have particular implications for young people, whose brains have more trouble focusing and setting priorities.

“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.”

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” added Dr. Rich, who last month gave a speech to the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled, “Finding Huck Finn: Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Screens.”

Well, perhaps that’s not the best way to solve that problem.  The real issue I have with the piece isn’t that it chronicles some of the changes in children how the wired world is affecting them – that’s important stuff, both for parents and for people who want to think about how the next generation will be interacting with information online – it’s that it’s framed very clearly in terms of how any change from the status quo is worrying.

In Vishal’s case, he’s not doing as well as he should at school work.  On the other hand, he’s learned how to use editing software via YouTube, and is engrossed in creating a video that he wants to use for his college application.

He does not leave his chair for more than two hours, sipping Pepsi, his face often inches from the screen, as he perfects the clip from the cemetery. The image of the crying woman was shot separately from the image of the kneeling man, and he is trying to fuse them.

“I’m spending two hours to get a few seconds just right,” he says.

He occasionally sends a text message or checks Facebook, but he is focused in a way he rarely is when doing homework.

So I guess teens these days can concentrate if they want to.

It’s as if we discovered a cure for the cancer, and all the coverage fretted about what that would mean for oncologists who would be out of a job.  We need to know much more about how we’re adapting to this new world, but we need to address that question in a measured, nuanced way.

Added 11/24: Over at Nieman Journalism Lab, Megan Garber posits a different view of the piece:  That the issue isn’t distraction, but more that the web allows for easier escape into the areas that we are really interested and away from the dull stuff.  In other words, Vishal isn’t distracted – he just doesn’t like some subjects at school, and the internet lets him explore the ones he does like, such as video editing.

Formal education, as we’ve framed it, is not only about finding ways to learn more about the things we love, but also, equally, about squelching our aversion to the things we don’t — all in the ecumenical spirit of generalized knowledge…. the web-powered world is creating a knowledge economy that spins on the axis of interest. Individual interest. The web inculcates a follow your bliss approach to learning that seeps, slowly, into the broader realm of information; under its influence, our notion of knowledge is slowly shedding its normative layers.

There’s some truth there – we can delve into worlds we couldn’t have before, and at the click of a mouse.  It isn’t distraction as much as it is, as she notes, following your bliss.  There are issues there in terms of education – as one commentator noted, they’re not really sure they want their doctor or airline pilot to be educated on the basis of  following their bliss – but this may well be one of the ways the internet is changing our behavioral patterns.

I do think there’s more to it than that, though – yes, the web enables us to do what we used to do in different/easier/harder/quicker ways.  But it is also almost certainly retraining our minds to do different things.  We’re just not entirely sure what, yet.



  1. To be or NOT to be? That IS the question! 2012 here we come!

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