Sunday, November 21, 2010

Driven to Digital Distraction

The New York Times has an excellent article (as a single page, here) today on young people and digital distraction, a piece that ranges from high school kids who can't focus to experiments on rats (and yes, as the parent of two teenagers, I'd argue the similarities are striking). 

The story uses one kid as a thread throughout, but it also touches on recent cognitive studies to draw a very simple conclusion -- we're creating kids who can't focus, who can't stay on task, who are drawn to new stimuli without adequately processing the previous stimuli.  The consequences on learning are significant.  Says one researcher:
“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.” 
Young brains have become habituated to distraction.  Can't live without it.

Oh, and I mentioned rats.  If you lead with something, I always tell my journalism students, don't forget the payoff.  So here it is:
At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory. 
Downtime, boring time, is vital.  A lack of stimulation.  This works for rats and, cognitive scientists say, people -- especially young people whose minds are still developing.  By learning to always be stimulated, by searching out the next media thing to do, young people in particular do not take the time to allow new experiences or information to soak into long-term memory.  And that matters.

So there: rats and teenagers, in a single Sunday post.

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