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Exploring the Assumptions About Kids and Electronic Media

Will Computers Warp Their Brains?
Exploring the Assumptions About Kids and Electronic Media

By Wendy Priesnitz

As life learners, we strive to give our children the freedom to pursue their interests and passions. We see that they learn quickly and happily – almost effortlessly – when they are caught up in and enjoying what they are doing. These days, pursuing our interests and passions can be assisted by the use of computers, smart phones, and various other electronics, such as gaming devices, e-readers, and tablets. However, many life learning parents are still concerned about their children’s use of electronic media.

These concerns are largely fueled by the studies appearing in the media about children’s electronic media usage. Those studies usually concentrate on the number of hours spent in front of a screen in relation to the amount of time spent playing outside, reading, or studying. Since most kids attend school or daycare, the studies reflect the institutionalized lives of those children. It’s true that when children are in front of a computer, they are distracted from interaction with caring adults, from active play, from hands-on lessons, and from direct experience of the natural world. But since life learning children have an infinite amount of unstructured time at their disposal, as well as the ability to self-regulate and actively follow their curiosity, the research studies don’t seem to apply.

The Alliance for Childhood released a report almost a decade-and-a-half ago entitled Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. It claimed that a heavy diet of ready-made computer images, programmed toys, and drill-and-practice computer programs actually appears to stunt imaginative thinking and creative idea generation. Indeed, much of the available educational software would bore anyone, let alone active, engaged life learning kids! What isn’t recognized is that this is a failure of the institutional mindset, which has taken a potentially useful tool and dumbed it down, or used it to administer curriculum, rather than of the technology itself.

So let’s challenge the assumptions about kids – especially self-educating ones – and computer usage. Let’s examine whether or not the conventional wisdom is really wise or if it’s merely become ossified into accepted truth.

In fact, the tools, techniques, and applications of technology can support integrated, inquiry-based learning and engage people in exploring, thinking, reading, writing, researching, drawing and designing, creating films and making music, inventing, problem-solving, experiencing the world, communicating, and collaborating.

The late Seymour Papert, a critic of conventional schooling and considered the world’s foremost expert on how technology can provide new ways to learn, contended that problems arise with educational computer usage only when the machines are isolated from the learning process and from life, rather than integrated into the whole, as they are for life learning children.

David Williamson Shaffer is another supporter of computer usage by children, and video gaming in particular. He is a former game designer and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his book How Computer Games Help Children Learn, Shaffer points out that when children play games like Sim City or The Oregon Trail, they learn about urban planning or the American West as a by-product of the play. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; Shaffer describes how games give children the chance to creatively manipulate a virtual world, and how they can teach creativity and innovation, abilities that are more important than ever in today’s competitive global economy.

Renowned game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal agrees about the potential of video games. In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, she notes that video games provide the rewards, challenges, and victories that are so often lacking in the real world (especially the so-called “real world” of school). She believes that the power of games shouldn’t be used for entertainment alone but that their collaborative power can be harnessed to solve real-world problems and to boost global happiness. To that end, she has helped pioneer a fast-growing genre of games that aims to turn gameplay to socially positive ends, such as fighting depression and obesity, and addressing important 21st century challenges like peak oil, poverty, and climate change.

Entrepreneur, author, public speaker, and gamification thought leader Gabe Zichermann believes that games are making kids better problem solvers, even smarter. In a TED talk, Zichermann asked, “Do kids these days have short attention spans, or does the world just move too slowly?” He thinks that we should get over our fear of change and embrace the gamification of education, business, and everyday life.

Things to Think About

But what about the nagging question about possible negative effects of violent video games? We don’t know the answer to that for sure. Much of the research on both sides has been conducted by or for those with preconceived notions of the outcome or using incorrect assumptions or flawed methodology. And, like a non-peer reviewed study entitled Violent Video Games Alter Brain Function in Young Men that was presented at a Radiological Society of North America conference, they are reported unquestioningly by the media. Twenty-two males were studied playing violent computer games for ten hours spread across one week. The researchers found that “a sample of randomly assigned young adults showed less activation in certain frontal brain regions,” adding that “these brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior.” However, there is no indication that the individuals involved actually demonstrated any violent or aggressive behavior. The study was paid for by something called the Center for Successful Parenting, whose web presence is vehemently anti-gaming but lacking any information to identify the people behind it.

In an article in the December 2011 issue of Nature Reviews/Neuroscience, Douglas Gentile, a researcher who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, cited a meta-analysis led by his colleague and ISU Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Craig Anderson. It included 136 papers detailing 381 independent tests of association conducted on 130,296 research participants. And it found that violent game play led to increases in desensitization, physiological arousal, aggressive cognition, and aggressive behavior, while decreasing pro-social behavior. However, Gentile says that the evidence that playing video games induces criminal or serious physical violence is much weaker than the evidence that games increase the types of verbal, relational, and physical aggression “that happen every day in school hallways.” Of course, that everyday aggression and its institutional triggers are why many parents choose homeschooling!

The use of computers is also controversial in terms of literacy. Many people – including Canadian author Margaret Atwood – believe that the Internet (and in Atwood’s case Twitter in particular) is a literacy driver, with even the most minimal amount of screen-based reading contributing to cognitive and literacy development. However, some researchers worry about “Twitter brain” because brain cells have been demonstrated to wither in the absence of certain kinds of in-depth stimulus.

For instance, University of Oxford neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has warned that Internet-driven “mind change” rivals climate change as one of humanity’s greatest threats, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantile mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.” She and other scientists agree that more research is needed.

Cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, warned of the Internet’s threat to literacy in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She is concerned because the hyperlinked, text-messaging screen shapes the mind quite differently than reading a book. “It pulls attention with such rapidity it doesn’t allow the kind of deep, focused attention that reading a book ten years ago invited,” she says, while admitting that today’s world requires a new kind of thinking.

Some publishing companies are experimenting with turning children’s books into apps. The result is more like an animated movie or game than a book, and some reading experts worry that the immersiveness of the technology can replace the shared experience of a child learning to read with a parent, turning it into an isolated pursuit, in the same way that some parents use television as a babysitter. Technology shows promise in increasing the interactivity, although building that into an app may not be cost-effective for publishers.

There are other valid concerns, such as the physical effects on our bodies of wireless usage, which are easy to find online. Like cell phone safety, it's a controversial topic that is becoming less that way as more research is conducted. Currently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRIC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classifies radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF/EMF), along with more than 250 other things as possibly carcinogenic. Cell phones and wif-fi devices create RF/EMF.

Another big question involves the more subtle, longer term effects of computers on people and our culture. Undoubtedly, electronic media is changing us in many ways. When author Nicholas Carr asked, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he tapped into a well of anxiety around whether or not Internet usage is negatively affecting our ability to read and think deeply. His subsequent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer. He explains the neuroscience behind how the technologies we use to find, store, and share information reroute our neural pathways, with, as Maryanne Wolf wrote before him, the interruption and distraction of following hypertext links impeding the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” creates.

Although this reconfiguring of our brains can have both positive and negative results, it is a reality of the present and a configuration that children will need to live in an electronically-based future. So it is clear to me that, like it or not, avoiding our children's computer use is both futile and doing them a disservice.

Given the lack of consensus about benefits or harms, parents must make up their own minds about how much electronic media their families are exposed to, and at what ages. Here are some things to consider in regards to your family's use of electronic media:

  • Since life learning parents are, among other things, mentors for their children, don’t be hypocritical about your use of electronics. The same principle applies to other things that some parents might feel are harmful – from “junk food” to television: If you want it in your life, you should be comfortable with in your child’s life. In fact, you might find that your life learning child is better able to self-regulate their computer usage than you are!

  • Parents should participate in their children’s screen time. Invite your kids to play video games with you – understand how the games work, how your kids interact with them, and the thought patterns they involve.

  • Jane McGonigal says studies show that games benefit adults mentally and emotionally when we play up to three hours a day, or twenty-one hours a week. After that, the benefits of gaming start to decline sharply. We don’t know the saturation point for children’s usage.

  • Playing computer games with others can strengthen social bonds. Playing with real-life friends and family is better than playing alone or with strangers. And playing face-to-face with friends and family beats playing with them online, says McGonigal.

  • The best games are collaborative, with strong, complex story lines. A great game challenges and entices the player to move beyond their current competency. But do not forget about having fun!

  • If you are concerned about competition, then you will find that cooperative gameplay has arguably more benefits than competitive games. Many games have a co-op mode.

  • Look for games that encourage or require players to design and create as part of the playing process. Or work together as a family to create your own games.

  • If you want to avoid games with realistic violence, guns, and gore, especially for young children, look for ones about sports, racing, music, adventure, strategy, or puzzles.

  • Help your child understand ergonomics and best practices for computer use to minimize eye strain, wireless exposure, and other physical problems associated with computer usage.

  • Stop reading research studies about the effects of electronics on kids. Instead, with your kids, observe how using electronics affects you and them, and adjust your usage accordingly.

Writer Pico Iyer recently wrote in a New York Times essay: “The central paradox of the machines that have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer, and healthier is that they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; the information revolution came without an instruction manual.” I suspect that our life learning children can help us find our way to the best, most balanced use of computers and other electronics in our lives.

Learn More

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Video Games” by Pamela Laricchia, Life Learning Magazine, 2004

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal (Penguin, 2011)

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (WW Norton, 2011)

Raising Children in a Digital Age” by Luminara King, Life Learning Magazine, 2015

The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap by Seymour A. Papert (Taylor Trade Publishing, 1996)

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf (Harper, 2008)

What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee (Palgrave Macmillan; 2nd edition, 2007)

Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson (Riverhead, 2005)

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine’s editor, a life learning/home education pioneer, author, and changemaker. She is the mother of two daughters who learned without school in the era before personal computers, and the step-grandmother of two teens.

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