The Digital Mind

The kids these days have everything all wrong. The lives of the youth are so backwards. At least, that’s what the adults say. And they may very well have a point.
Times are changing, and technology is leading the charge. New gadgets with new capabilities roll off the assembly line as our lives become more and more plugged in. First it was a single bulky computer per house – now it’s an iPhone for everyone and a laptop or TV in every room. The change has been rapid and relentless.
And it is undoubtedly the youth that have spearheaded the technological revolution. We have become walking computers – the world is quite literally a click away. Yet despite the unique times we live in, it seems few in the digital generation have begun asking the all-important question: how is technology changing the way we think?
This article seeks to answer that question in more ways than one, for there is no single response. No, technology is not making us dumber – such blanket generalizations are rarely true – but it is, without a doubt, making us different.

(Dee Luo)
(Dee Luo)

Do you speak teenager?

The adult world – i.e. the real world – is centered around communication. Strong communication is the foundation for career and interpersonal success, and the digital generation is struggling to keep up.
“I think technology is changing our ability to communicate effectively with one another, because so much of our ability to communicate with others hinges on non-verbal communication,” said Dr. Timothy Bono, a lecturer in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. “And all of that is lost in an email.”
The vocal intonations, facial expressions and gestures that add to the semantic meaning of words in a conversation are imperceptible online or in a text. Most have had the experience of a sarcastic or joking message being interpreted the wrong way, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. Clearly, email or texting is not a substitute for personal interaction.
The result is that young people – and even some adults – though very adept at texting and chatting, have difficulty with physical conversation.
“People are not as good at face-to-face communication with one another because they haven’t practiced as much, because they’ve relied on the quick, easy abbreviations – ‘LOL,’ ‘cya tonite’ – without having to worry about how it’s spelled or anything,” Bono said. “And I think that’s sort of the unfortunate thing: that people aren’t practicing eye contact and the social cues that come with actual physical interaction.”
A weak handshake, poor eye contact, uncomfortable body language and the like can all be serious taboos in the adult world, especially in professional situations such as a job interview. In this way, lack of communication skills can be costly.
One might argue that social media, though not face-to-face, are just as effective a method of communication as personal conversation. But it is not so simple. Though efficient, social networking has its downsides.
Two years ago, Bono did a study of incoming freshmen at Wash. U. that examined their transition into the university in relation to their use of social media sites, and the results were counter intuitive.
“In particular, [students] reported lower self-esteem, they felt less optimistic about the week ahead, they got less sleep during the weeks when they spent more time on social networking sites, they were more homesick, less motivated to do well in school and, most ironically of all, they reported feeling less connected to others,” Bono said.
Though the study demonstrated a correlation and not a direct cause and effect, it is still powerful. Bono said that sites like Facebook and Twitter allow for “social comparison” – you can see what others are doing and, in many cases, become jealous or develop a sense of inadequacy.
In short, technology is ushering in a new age of communication among the youth, one that favors the brevity and superficiality of online messaging and texting over the complexity of face-to-face interaction. But the adult world is not necessarily following suit, and the digital generation’s inability to communicate effectively may prove problematic.

 

Popcorn brain

Here’s another problem with the kids these days: they can’t pay attention. And how could they? Is it really possible to accomplish anything while texting, watching TV, doing homework, checking Facebook, messaging someone and having a conversation at the same time? The answer, according to Stanford University psychologist Dr. Clifford Nass, is no.
“It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” he told PBS’s Frontline. “They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”
The appeal of multitasking is not new – it stems from the primitive human desire to respond to new threats and opportunities. The dopamine spike in response to the excitement of receiving a text or a Facebook notification can be addicting. Researchers say that the lure of technological stimulation can be compared to the attraction to food and sex, which are unhealthy in excess.
Bono said that attention can be thought of as something finite – the more you divide your attention, the less attention each activity will receive.
“We know that [multitasking] inhibits the ability to focus on the task at hand,” Bono said. “People think that they can handle many different tasks all at the same time, but by doing that you’re necessarily compromising your ability to focus on what’s most important.”
Numerous studies have demonstrated the inefficacy of multitasking. One investigation showed college students a news program with and without blurbs crawling at the bottom of the screen. The results showed that the students remembered significantly less from the news broadcast when their attention was diverted to the news crawls.
“Under multitasking conditions, cognitive processing [is] less mindful and more automatic,” wrote UCLA professor of psychology Dr. Patricia Greenfield in Science Magazine.
CHS teachers are already seeing the effects. English teacher Emily Grady said she’s seen a decline in students’ ability to sustain reading, and history teacher Sam Harned agreed that students have changed in that they struggle more with in-depth, thorough analysis.
“More and more students, I think, have a hard time with material that involves sustained attention, because so much in their culture works against that,” Harned said.
High school, with its 46-minute classes that tend to be varied and interactive, accommodates this short attention span. But Harned, who teaches once a week at Wash. U., predicted a “culture shock” for students when they go to college and classes consist only of a professor talking for an hour and fifteen minutes.
Although attention may be suffering, technology has augmented visual skills such as iconic representation, spatial reasoning, and spatial visualization. But this comes at a cost.
“No real-time medium – including film, television, radio – permits time to reflect,” Greenfield said. “The one communication technology that does provide time to reflect is the written word.”
Reflection, she noted, is associated with inductive critical thinking, while television is associated with impulsivity. One study showed that recreational reading levels in college students were a statistically significant predictor of critical thinking skills.
“Although the visual capabilities of television, video games, and the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” Greenfield said.
Indeed, electronic media have also impacted our ability to imagine. While studies show that more information can be retained when a story is portrayed audiovisually, the creative response is stronger when the story is presented in print.

 

Teach me how to Google

Not only is technology affecting the way that we think – it’s changing the way we learn. In some ways, it has made education more efficient and more meaningful, but it has also provided shortcuts and easy answers that only hamper true learning.
According to CHS Educational Technologist David Hoffman, technologies like the Smart Board have made classrooms more interactive and, studies show, more effective.
Greenfield suggested that there may be a “mismatch” between the oral and print media used to teach and test students and the visual nature of students’ knowledge. She also said that the developing mind “still needs a balanced media diet,” one that incorporate visual learning and reading to cultivate various cognitive skills.
Knowledge iteslf is becoming more and more accessible, and the importance of memorization versus process learning is changing.
“Technology makes learning so much more efficient,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have to spend so much time memorizing, you really spend time on learning, and how to learn and problem solving.”
For example, Math Department Chair Stacy Felps described the graphing calculator as a fundamental change, but not in the sense that it allows students to forgo understanding the math. In fact, she said it actually allows for greater comprehension by making computation and experimentation so easy.
“Instead of thinking less, appropriate use of the calculator really should be letting us think more deeply about situations beyond computation,” Felps said.
In a sense, finding information has become more important than actually learning it. And the ability to find an answer to most questions immediately – rather than going to a library and looking something up – has changed the conception of knowledge. To know facts has become almost insignificant, since anyone with an iPhone can know the same facts in five seconds.
“The amount of time that is saved is really phenomenal,” said Spanish teacher Teresa Schafer.
But, at the same time, she expressed concern that the learning that goes on while searching for an answer may be lost in the age of Google.
Technology’s shortcuts also provide endless opportunity to avoid learning like the plague. Google Translate can make foreign language homework mindless, graphing calculators and computer algebra systems can make math a series of buttons to press instead of a conceptual understanding, and Spark Notes can make English essays a matter of careful rephrasing rather than thoughtful analysis.

 

The Bright Side

Technology, in itself, is no demon. Like anything, the key is moderation and balance. While a Chinese study showed that people with Internet addictions lose some of their brain’s gray matter – the thinking part – the key is that they grossly overused the Internet. Sure, there are significant changes that technology has effected, like the way we communicate and our ability to sustain attention, but there is also so much opportunity.
This is a truly revolutionary age. The world is more open than it ever has been, information is everywhere, and communication is constant. We are learning more in high school than our parents ever could have dreamed of, and it is largely due to technology. And although Google is not the answer to everything, it is certainly the answer to a whole lot of things.
Speed is the nature of technology. It allows us to operate faster and more efficiently, and it develops and changes rapidly. In such an environment, it is impossible to know what the world will look like in five, 10, or 20 years. It’s even hard to know what the next day will bring.
We stand at a crossroads, and, as Grady said, “any time you’re at a crossroads there’s always this regret for what you’re losing, but maybe something better is coming.”