Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

Digital Technology Is Gambling With Children’s Minds

Writing, reading, focusing, and remembering have all been transformed
By Elias Aboujaoude — November 13, 2018 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The psychological impact of digital technology on K-12 students has been the subject of considerable research. “Internet addiction,” video game violence, and cyberbullying have received much attention. The impact of digital life on children’s cognition is less familiar to young users, their parents, and teachers. Yet, new technologies have altered key aspects of cognition. Writing, reading, focusing, and remembering have all been transformed, dictating new realities in the classroom and beyond.

A large proportion of interpersonal communications among those old enough to have a cellphone occurs over text messaging platforms. As early as 2012, teens between 14 to 17 years old were sending a median of 100 texts a day, according to the Pew Research Center. Much of these communications are in a language that bears little resemblance to the one they are being taught in school. This comes at a cost: It is difficult to convey meaning without the paralinguistic cues of gesture, facial expression, emphasis, and intonation, and this problem is hardly addressed by the creative addition of emoticons or bitmojis to convey feelings. Highly interpretable, the abbreviations, symbols, and pictograms of e-language cannot fulfill the role of language to express with precision and nuance specific facts or states of mind. Yet, digital-based communication is the new lingua franca.

With all manner of information at students' fingertips, why memorize anything?"

This is compounded by the dumbing down of content. The primacy of speed in electronic communication results in missives that try to squeeze the most into unrealistically short sentences (if they can still be called that). The physical limitations, even for agile, well-trained fingers, to typing on a small screen also conspire against extraneous detail or background, grammatical demands, or social niceties. The result can be an avoidance or oversimplification of complexity and exchanges that are reduced to decontextualized opinions, abrupt declamations, or rapid transactions.

Linguists may celebrate these changes as signs of a language that is alive and evolving. The same process that transformed “it is” to “it’s” may be transforming “laughing out loud” to “LOL.” Still, the speed with which written expression is changing is unprecedented—LOL itself seems passé among young texters, having been replaced by pictures and various iterations of the smiley face. The abandonment of even acronyms can be seen as a sign of language regression, a sort of “evolution” toward a neo-hieroglyphic age, with real cognitive implications.

Reading is similarly transformed. Some eye-tracking experiments suggest that people read a page differently online—in a scanning “F” pattern superimposed on the page, rather than top to bottom and left to right. Research from University College London suggests that online readers “scan, flick, and ‘power-browse’ their way through digital content,” constantly looking for distractions in the form of other online material they could be reading. These issues would seem more acute for digital natives who may have never had enough practice with “traditional” reading. As happened with writing, we have invented new ways to read, perhaps cognitively rewiring our brains along the way.

Attention, another pillar of cognition, is also compromised. The rates of attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder, including in very young children, have risen, in a manner that raises questions about the role of early and very frequent screen exposure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the estimated number of children and adolescents who have ever been diagnosed with ADHD increased from 4.4 million in 2003 to 6.1 million in 2016. Other studies that directly assessed the link between ADHD and excessive screen time point to a strong association. This was highlighted in a large meta-analysis of 15 studies that explored the association between ADHD and “internet addiction.” It concluded that internet addiction in adolescents and young adults was associated with more severe symptoms of ADHD.

Of course, such data pose a chicken-or-egg question: Do digital technology addicts develop ADHD because their attention spans shorten online, or are kids with ADHD attracted to the internet because its pace matches their compromised attention? While the answer remains elusive, the correlation is there and may have contributed to the increase seen in the number of stimulant prescriptions: Drug usage statistics suggest that the number of prescriptions for the stimulant methyphenidate—such as Ritalin and Concerta—has risen by over 27 percent between 2004 and 2014 in the United States, and the number of psychostimulants prescribed in the United Kingdom has more than doubled over the same time period. If attention shrinks, students’ cognitive universe, almost by definition, will shrink.

With all manner of information at students’ fingertips, why memorize anything? This is not a silly question, and students increasingly ask it of their teachers. After all, whatever knowledge nugget they might be after, it is highly likely that a quick search will yield it. Traditionally, education involved storing information into students’ heads. The search engine has made it so that learning is increasingly about mastering how to navigate databases.

If, in this new paradigm, downloading has replaced retrieving information from a student’s internal library, what does it purport for digital natives’ memory neurons? There is still plenty that neuroscience does not know about how memories form and are accessed, but might we compromise in any way the capacity to remember if we stop “exercising” it? Or is this tremendous neuronal power simply rechanneled toward other goals, thereby making new achievements possible for today’s students? The answer is largely unknown, which is why this new emphasis on the search engine rather than engine of memory would seem to amount to a gambling act.

In many ways, this is the best time to learn. Never have students had more books available than what is scanned online. Never have there been more informative TED talks they can watch, or more MOOC courses by star lecturers they can enroll in. Yet, many potential consumers of this immense body of knowledge may be too distracted to truly benefit from it. If they lose the taste for words, develop an allergy to grammar, compress their attention spans, and become impatient with the time and space it takes to develop an idea, all the “big data” at their fingertips may prove of limited value, like a wasted resource for a generation that won’t know what to do with it. A frowny emoji would seem apropos here.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as The Digital Assault on Cognition

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy Q&A A New Plan to Raise the Lowest Literacy Rates in the Nation
Daily summer reading instruction for thousands of students is part of a bigger plan to improve literacy in New Mexico.
5 min read
Arsenio Romero, secretary of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, addresses the audience at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024.
Arsenio Romero, the New Mexico secretary of education, speaks at the Albuquerque Earth Day Festival on April 21, 2024. Romero is leading a statewide effort to improve literacy.
Courtesy of New Mexico Public Education Department
Reading & Literacy Older Students Who Struggle to Read Hide in Plain Sight. What Teachers Can Do
Going back to basics may get to the root of the problem.
6 min read
Image of a seventh-grade student looking through books in her school library.
A seventh-grade student looks through books in her school library.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages
Reading & Literacy The Key Parts of a 'Science of Reading' Transformation, According to One State Chief
Under Carey Wright's leadership, Mississippi pulled off a reading "miracle." She has a similar transformation in mind for Maryland.
6 min read
Dr. Carey Wright, the interim state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement with Stephen Sawchuk, an assistant managing editor for Education Week, during the 2024 Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va. on Friday, May 3, 2024.
Carey Wright, the state superintendent for Maryland, discusses improving literacy instruction and achievement during Education Week's Leadership Symposium in Arlington, Va., on May 3, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Reading & Literacy Teachers Are Still Teaching Older Students Basic Reading Skills, Survey Finds
Who across the K-12 spectrum engages frequently in activities that promote foundational reading skills? The answer may come as a surprise.
4 min read
Group of kids reading while sitting on the floor in the library
Zinkevych/iStock/Getty