Mr. Postman warned that culture would always pay a price for technology. He believed that a computer-saturated world would elevate information over wisdom, or as his former student Paul Levinson, the author of last year’s New New Media, explained this week, transform childhood into “one big game show,” creating minds distracted by bells and whistles and unable to master complex thought. And while he thinks that’s a worthy debate, Dr. Levinson, a communications professor at Fordham University in New York, doesn’t agree with his old teacher, pointing out, for example, how kids devoured the Harry Potter books. “Human beings are inherently rational,” he says. “We can separate truth from falsity. We understand the difference between illusions and reality, between games and fun, and more serious things. And this is true of little kids.” He argues it’s a good thing that youth today have access to more information than any other generation before them, and if they don’t spend their iPad time catching up on world news, well, it’s not like they avidly read newspapers before.
But maybe it’s a case of too much information now streaming in fragments from too many directions, suggests Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Today’s technology is “consuming your attention without actually allowing you to pay attention,” he says. “If you are a teenager, you want to be in that steam of messages.”
Unplugging has become an endurance test: This week, students at a school in Washington State gave up social networking and cellphones for seven days – an experiment now so bold it attracted national media attention. “The kids are holding up better than we thought,” said teacher Trent Mitchell on day three. Though not without side effects: “One of my students says that he’s not carrying his cellphone this week and he keeps thinking that it’s ringing or vibrating and there’s no cellphone there – like phantom text messages.”
And what’s all that technology doing to our kids brains? The experiment is ongoing, says Mr. Carr, but he counters the argument that multitasking exercises the mind, arguing – as Mr. Postman did – that our brains are being wired away from focus and creativity. And in the spirit of Mr. Postman, he writes in his book that our screen-flitting habits make us see “only twigs and leaves,” not the forest.
That’s also Dr. Rich’s worry – that the best way to build a young brain is by face-to-face interactions, physical manipulation and complex problem-solving – things not best provided in an iPad app. Starting from birth, Dr. Rich says, “the things you use will be reinforced and strengthened and the things you don’t use will drop away.” The brain is shaped by experience – neuroplasticity – which means that if you don’t use it, you lose it. The problem is that other research has made an equally compelling case that using technology fires up the brain in positive ways, that even video games may improve certain cognitive facilities, such as visual motor skills and attention. (The skills you’d need, say, to be surgeon.) As a group, neuroscientists and child development experts such as Dr. Rich don’t agree, at least not yet.
Which makes this new generation the experiment, and leaves parents worrying that, as Mr. Postman said, their lives are being fitted (and their brains mapped) to suit technology, rather than the other way around. Either way, you’ll probably be slipping at least one gadget under the tree this year. Don’t beat yourself up. There’s always the chance that the Angry Birds app might turn your nine-year-old into a neurosurgeon.
Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail