Humans have always adapted to suit their changing environment, but it seems our children’s brains are now adapting to fit a new, fast world of screen-based information overload and constant multi-tasking. By Liz Fraser
Click, copy, paste, double-click, drag, delete, ‘Like’, post, undo, next!
The old joke about future generations having giant thumbs and big bottoms, thanks to all the sitting around texting, is now turning to one where the humans of tomorrow will only decide what they want if they’re offered a drop-down menu, or express emotion through a series of ‘Like’ buttons.
It’s not quite that bad yet, of course. But there is growing evidence that the way many children live now, and the way they are learning, is affecting the way their brains develop and function, and not all of it in a good way.
A recent parents’ evening brought this to my attention: several teachers mentioned a noticeable increase in the number of pupils who found it difficult to focus on one thing at a time, were easily distracted and couldn’t answer questions in detail.
They were extremely quick to find information and stick it into an essay, or to do 10 things at once. But it’s the concentration, the deep, considered thought and understanding of a subject that they found so hard. They skimmed the facts, but missed the deeper picture.
‘There have been gains and losses, certainly,’ says Dr Stringer, deputy head of The Perse Girls Senior School in Cambridge. ‘We have gained mental nimbleness and a greater emphasis on creativity, which is a positive thing. But with this we have lost an attention to detail and the belief that this even matters.’
In A Spoonful Of Sugar, I refer to these children as having ‘pond-skater minds’ – they flit and skit about from one idea to the next, without really taking the time to think about it or understand it in any depth before moving on to the next thing. Born of constant over-stimulation, choice, immediate results and the ability to hit ‘delete’ at any time, children no longer need to think before they type, wait before they click, or give much time to any concept at all.
I notice it with my own children, who are often texting friends, talking to each other and checking Facebook at the same time. The mental gymnastics are not conducive to considered, calm thinking. Yes, there are advantages to being able to think quickly and multi-task, and they will almost certainly need these skills, and total techno-familiarity, in their everyday adult lives. But humans don’t live online.
The virtual is just that: virtual. The real world is actual, and it’s where the two get confused that trouble starts.
According to Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, being engulfed by the whizz-bang speedy stimulation of computer games, phones, multi-platform communication and choice can make the real world seem very slow and mundane, and consequently hard to deal with.
‘Video gamers possess increased visual attention and can handle more complex visual attention-switching tasks,’ she says. ‘But this could lead to increased distractibility in visually weak environments of the type that, arguably, constitute the “real” world.’
The social and ‘human’ impact of a lot of screen-time is also a concern.
‘Beyond our reasoning ability is our ability to appreciate, understand, what is happening around us,’ says Greenfield. ‘The computer, even more so than the TV, may be initiating a fundamental change in the development of a robust conceptual framework based on a wealth of different narratives.’
In other words, computers are great and everything, but they don’t teach children how to respond to normal, human interaction in a normal human world. Spending a lot of time on computers teaches children to operate in a purely menu-based way; they can choose – quickly – from a menu of choices, but they find it difficult to generate ideas themselves. Spellings are corrected automatically, and they can choose from one of three words offered, within milliseconds. But when this choice is taken away, they don’t know what to do.
‘If you are always working with directory trees – where menus are offered with fixed numbers of options where… you have to plod up and down though various branch lines of thinking – might that pattern not impose itself on the way we think in general?’ asks Greenfield. ‘Surely it would be highly restrictive.’
I see what I think are the effects of this every week, when my children’s friends come to play. The ones who I know have a lot of daily screen-time are the ones who don’t seem able to interact with me, hold a conversation without wandering off, or think of what to do if computer-time isn’t offered. They don’t seem able to spend time in their own company, or in the company of others, without the crutch of a screen or a smartphone to hold the drifting, flitting attention.
Without a menu of choices, they are, literally, lost in the world.
Being unused to using your own imagination, to thinking of your own ideas and to losing yourself in a subject could restrict the freedom to think and create that is so innate, and vital, to being a child.
Television, computers, smartphones, Instagram, Facebook and so on are each wonderful and useful and exciting in their own ways. But they do little for the inner imagination, or for normal human behaviour. We would do well to make sure our children use their brains this way as much as possible, while they can.