By Benjamin Wachs
A friend of mine has a daughter, and one day this kid starts crying because all the other kids get to jump off of tall bridges.
Well, what could my friend do? He had to let his little girl jump off bridges, too. Otherwise, she might miss out on the chance to gain valuable bridge-jumping skills.
Is that a facile example? You bet, but that's the way we think about kids and technology. We encourage them to ride each new trend as though there were a stampede behind it, and we condemn parents who think that separating their child from the herd might be good for them.
This point was made dramatically this week by Silicon Valley author-cum-blogger Sarah Lacy, who wrote:
Keeping your children from using some of the most socially transformative tools modern technology has ever seen was at best wildly overprotective and at worst setting them up for a lifetime of disadvantages. It's like homeschooling, cutting off all access to pop culture and self expression, and not allowing them to participate in anything that might advance future career-networking all rolled into one. Ok, maybe that's extreme. But, in some households and cultures, maybe not.
Then Brittney Gilbert, who runs a meta-meta-blog on San Francisco bloggers blogging about San Francisco, also declared that white noise can't possibly be bad for kids if they find it online.
I think keeping your children from the networking powers of the world wide web is effectively keeping them from developing new media skills. These sites and the skills you need to navigate them are not going away. MySpace, Twitter, Facebook--they are only tools. The behavior parent are trying to prevent will surface with or without an internet ban.
There are two problems with this common line of thinking, and only the first is that it's self-evidently not true. Let's let Sarah Lacy take a deep breath while we wonder: Can kids really not "access self expression" without the internet? Are kids who play in the woods really more stifled than kids who stay indoors playing Diablo? Is the only way to share your thoughts with fellow human beings to Twitter in 140 characters or less?
I've got all of human history that says differently. Whadda you got?
But more importantly, it behooves us to remember that like most technical innovations, we were exposed to the Internet long before anybody could ascertain if it was good for us. We assumed that it must be because by the time somebody asked the question we all had MySpace pages, but the research is only now coming in.
And the research, especially for kids, suggests that Lacy, Gilbert, and Pop Culture are wrong: the Internet is developmentally toxic.
Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about scaaaaary internet predators or the evils of porn – anybody who doesn't let their kids online because of that stuff really is missing the boat.
But I am talking about Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" where he postulates that the very mechanisms of online life are making us incapable of deep or sustained thoughts. We inevitably take on the mental qualities of the technology we use to gather information, he notes – and that means that many of us now have Spam where our brains ought to be. He noticed the effect in himself first:
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon. Scott Karp, who writes a blog about online media, recently confessed that he has stopped reading books altogether. “I was a lit major in college, and used to be [a] voracious book reader,” he wrote. “What happened?” He speculates on the answer: “What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed?”
In fact, research going as far back as 1997 has noted that the way people read online is fundamentally different. Researchers were noting that:
• Users do not read on the Web; instead they scan the pages, trying to pick out a few sentences or even parts of sentences to get the information they want.
• Users do not like long, scrolling pages: they prefer the text to be short and to the point.
And the more we read like that, the more we build up the habit of thinking like that. Which presumably means you're not reading this now. Certainly you couldn’t follow it if you were exposed to reading through the web, and never developed the skills needed to make it through a paragraph.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't "reading" one of those skills we want kids to have? Turns out that to get it, and keep in the habit, they need to turn the internet off. Not the "computer" – the "Internet."
Maybe this is why schools across the nation are abandoning the widely heralded attempts to give every child a laptop.
As the New York Times notes:
"After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none," said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students' hands. "The teachers were telling us when there's a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It's a distraction to the educational process."
They're not alone. The Department of Education has released a study showing that educational software for math and reading did not improve student performance. Meanwhile, a host of studies compelling show that the more time students spend on-line, the more their academic skills decline. Basically if you try to teach students about biology with a computer, they learn about the computer - but not biology.
According to a 2005 the study (PDF), conducted out of the University of Munich, it often looks like time spent on computers improves student performance because the families of high achieving students can often afford computers. BUT, once you control for family background and school quality, "the relationship gets negative for home computers and insignificant for school computers."
That is to say: having computers at school doesn't help academic performance, and having computers at home actually reduces it.
Unless…unless the home computers are specifically used for educational purposes only. Then the negative effect goes away.
The trouble for Lacy and others is that Twitter doesn't count as an educational use. MySpace, Facebook, Google – THESE are actually the things cutting kids off from the skills they need in life. They diminish reading skills, destroy attention span, and drown kids in white noise. Finding information online is not educational if it reduces your ability to process it.
And while there are millions of fully functioning adults who use these services all the time, most of them came of age before the internet. All of them learned the skills that make the internet useful by spending time away from it: they how to read a book before millions of web pages encouraged us to scan content rather than think about it.
Meanwhile Google IS making us dumber and social networking IS causing our ability to interact with people face-to-face to decay … and parents who want their kids to keep out of the World Wide Wasteland for a while are likely saving the culture.
As for kids potentially lacking "new media skills" – okay, show of hands: how many people never got ahead in life because they didn't jump on to "Friendster" when it was hot? There's no problem teaching kids how to use computers, and it’s okay to give them access to the internet after they've already learned how to concentrate, stop and think, and look other people in the eye. But giving it to them before that appears to do a demonstrable harm.
In fact, let's be honest here: we could ban kids from the internet until they turn 18, and probably not lose a thing. In most cases, they'd be better off for it.
This is a slippery slope - especially since a similar justification has been used to try and ban comic books and dime-store novels. But what’s different about this is that it wouldn’t be restricting content … just one means of delivery … until they’re 18, at which point the doors would be wide open.
It would never work, of course – and I’d never advocate knocking people’s doors down to see if their kids are networked – but if a ban at least reduced the amount of time kids spent online by taking the internet out of schools and (some) homes, it still might be worth it.