Technology and children’s attention spans

Technology and children’s attention spans

I decided to select the topic of the impact of technology on children’s attention spans because it was of great personal interest to me. Like many young people, I have heard adults complain that my generation has a very short attention span. It is hard for me to gauge this, of course, because I only have my own perceptions as a reference. Anecdotally, this seems to be the case. If I look back on the books and movies of a generation ago, they do seem longer and more detailed than the media of today. But empirical research is required to establish if such common sense wisdom is actually the case.

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I believed that the research would have value because it could have an impact upon how children are taught. If interactive technology such as video games can impede a student’s learning even before the child can make a conscious choice about the matter, then our society should take action. But online media and video games, rather than being shunned by educators, are actually being embraced in many quarters. Is this really such a bad thing, I wondered, given the potential to prepare students for the modern workplace where they will use such technology in their daily lives?

After searching online databases for scholarly articles on the subject, I soon found that many media critics did consider technology to be very bad indeed for young people. The picture they painted was bleak, although their viewpoints were often more emotional in nature than really substantiated with logical evidence. They wrote that children who spent too much time staring at a computer would become overweight, passive, and be unable to appreciate complex ideas and works of literature.

One of the problems, I found in researching the degree to which young people are affected by the media they consume is that so many other influences play a role in shaping a child’s life. Correlation is not causation, and even if students who watch more television or spend more time online get poorer grades (and I could not find a study that even proved this fact) this does not necessarily mean that the poorer grades are caused by the technology, but rather may be caused by a lack of parental supervision and a lack of stimulation in terms of other aspects of the children’s lives. This does not negate the potential of computers to be helpful in the classroom, since they might actually have beneficial effects overall.

The impact of technology upon children’s learning is also particularly difficult to calculate because schools have changed so radically in the past decades. As the concentration of wealth in America has grown greater, there are more excellent schools but also more failing schools. Initiatives such as expanded standardized testing in the wake of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has completely revamped many curriculums, causing school assignments to be less creative and more focused upon testing. A combination of higher concentrations of poverty and less interesting classes might be a reason that children seem to have shorter attention spans, not new technology. Once again, this makes effective comparative research that could more effectively determine causality nearly impossible. I tried to highlight the problems with discussing causality and trying to find research that showed a causal link between poor school performance and high rates of Internet use in my paper.

If I could write a longer research paper on the same topic, I would like to delve more deeply into an analysis of the characteristics of students who consume a great deal of online media, and also the types of technology they consume. Is there a difference between a child who uses the Internet to research his or her homework and connect to fellow music fans vs. A child who merely uses the television and Internet in a passive fashion, to play video games and spend hours talking with school friends on Facebook? Once again, intuitively I am inclined to say yes, but little research existed in terms of segmenting different types of children’s online media consumption. Most studies merely focused upon hours logged in front of the television or computer.

One area of research I found particularly interesting, but which I knew little about, was children’s capacities for processing information. In this area, the notion of a natural developmental trajectory was supported: children’s attention spans are indeed shorter than adult’s, but this is normal. The adult perception that children have ‘no attention span’ may thus be a product of the naturally longer adult perspective on time, and children’s limited capacity to focus because of the nature of their brains. Once again, the notion that the ‘older generation’ tends to view the younger generation dismissively may partially be because children and adults literally have different brains, rather than one new aspect of the environment (technology) has proved to be particularly warping. Children and teens are not small adults and never have been.

Overall, this area of research spawned more questions than it answered. I believe my research was a good start, but there was no way I could conclusively prove that the Internet was beneficial any more than its critics could conclusively prove it to be harmful. I became acutely aware of the fact that more research needs to be done upon the effect of technology on the human brain. The technology being studied is still very young. However, the lack of substantiated research that suggests a negative impact upon children and the amount of personal ire directed against the Internet by older people indicated to me that that the blame placed upon technology may be more due to normal generational tensions than anything inherent to the Internet as a medium. Further research is also needed to segment how viewers use the Internet (passively vs. actively; to advance themselves in school vs. entertainment) and precisely how schools can use technology in a manner that enhances student learning and prepares them for the future in a positive way.

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