The New York Times has come to the conclusion that watching television and playing video games is not conducive to reading. Further, preliminary evidence suggests that chatting on cell phones, updating Facebook, and clicking around YouTube appears to interfere with the mechanics of inserting one’s nose between the pages.
Many will find this news shocking. Who could have guessed that those sending hundreds of text messages a day, many filled with deep content such as “Hi LOL”, and spending endless hours pew-pew-pew-ing with sweaty palms wrapped around Xbox controllers would have difficulty reading?
Certainly not “researchers”, a group of earnest folk who are only now coming to grips with this subtle phenomenon. They “say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people.”
Some teachers are so flummoxed that they have lapsed into circular arguments, and though they “express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills.” Yet who has to teach these kids to text, that now “essential” skill?
One school principal has become so gut-wrenchingly concerned that he has taken to starting school an hour later because “students were showing up bleary-eyed, at least in part because they were up late on their computers. Unchecked use of digital devices, [the principal] says, can create a culture in which students are addicted to the virtual world and lost in it.” Left unexplained is how rewarding the students’ behavior by allowing them to come late will encourage them to abandon their addictions.
A professor from Duke has discovered that if kids “are left to their own devices…the impetus isn’t to do homework but play around.” A team of Germans “found that playing video games led to markedly lower sleep quality” in kids (I’ll be critiquing this paper in a separate post).
In short, the grownups are mystified. As is typical in situations of this sort, none of the adults thought to ask the kids their opinions. Except the Times reporter, who heard from one kid that “I’ll be reading a book for homework and I’ll get a text message and pause my reading and put down the book, pick up the phone to reply to the text message, and then 20 minutes later realize, ‘Oh, I forgot to do my homework.'”
Another said, “I know I can read a book, but then I’m up and checking Facebook…Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”
A third noticed that on YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes…A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”
In other words, the kids know just what’s wrong, and they know the solution, too:
[The third student] says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.
He wishes his parents would be authority figures! Yet his mother couldn’t bring herself to be one. “If we put roadblocks in his way, he’s just going to get depressed.” Better her son not be sad. He may not be able to read and write, but at least he will be happy. Temporarily.
One commenter noticed the problem is not new:
In 1685 historian Adrien Baillat wrote, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.”
Exposure was used by the Spartans to effect a strengthening of the tribe; Baillat suggests the same be done with bad books. And if we as parents care to raise literate children, we might follow the Spartan example with Facebook inter alia. Incidentally, it’s curious to see the inversion of that word from something evil to a thing earnestly desired.