A number of people have asked me what I thought of Matt Richtel's piece in the Sunday Times, "Growing Up Digital, Wired For Distraction," the latest in the Times' "Your Brain On Computers" series. It's been in heavy rotation in the Twittoblogosphere for the past 48 hours, so I'm going to assume some familiarity with the story and argument here. (If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it, despite my misgivings.)
First, I do really respect that Richtel is trying to present a balanced case here; he's thankfully chosen as the main subject--17-year-old Vishal Singh--someone who is not dropping out of school thanks to his Facebook addiction, or getting preyed on by child molesters or some other digital moral panic. Richtel quotes more concerned voices than enthusiastic ones, but both sides get an airing.
That said, I do find something puzzling about the whole choice of Vishal as a central study, because the piece assumes that his lessening interest in books and (some) of his coursework is due to the siren song of the digital screen. But what's clearly obsessing Vishal is his love affair with video editing. There's no reason to think the 1985 version of Vishal wouldn't have been equally distracted from his schoolwork by the very same hobby. He just seems like such a clear type to me--the exact kind of kid that I knew growing up, in fact that I partially *was* growing up--the obsessive kid who is so into his movies/painting/model rockets/whatever that he doesn't pay as much attention to his schoolwork. I knew a bunch of kids who really wanted to be filmmakers, and kind of blew off school for a while. By far, the biggest difference between them and this Vishal is that Vishal has access to editing equipment that my friends in 1985 could only dream about.
I read the descriptions of Vishal building his composite shots for his video and thought: here's a kid who is actually learning a high-level skill with immediate commercial value in the job market, that also exercises his creative faculties -- and he's doing it for fun! Maybe it shouldn't be a zero sum game between learning to use complex video software and learning Algebra, but if I had to choose one over the other for the kid, I'd say he's making the right choice.
The problem, of course, is that if he fails Algebra, he'll potentially have trouble getting into a good college, which could have long-term negative effects on his professional options. But if the colleges aren't smart enough to recognize that high-level software skills are as valuable a signal of merit as algebra grades, then I think it's the priorities of the college admissions team that are skewed, not Vishal's.
I think the piece would have also been helped if Richtel had spent at least some time with the kids who are doing great by traditional standards. I mean, everything I hear about the college admission process is that it's more competitive than ever, and the problem is the surplus of super-talented kids. Are all these over-achievers somehow using Facebook less than the Vishals of the world? Maybe they are, but until we hear about them, it doesn't really matter that some kids are getting distracted by games or social networks and doing less well in school because of it. Teenagers have a long history of being distracted by things, after all.
And of course, where reading is concerned -- the piece starts with Vishal choosing between the computer and his summer reading -- we actually have a real apples-to-apples comparison of US high school reading skills, dating back to the pre-Web era. They are essentially flat since 1992 for Vishal's cohort, and slightly up for 8th-graders. How could reading skills not be damaged by all these distracting technologies? One potential answer is that--distracting as they are--they are immersing children in a world of *text*--so different from the television/telephone-driven teen culture that I grew up in during the 1980s. If reading skills aren't in fact in decline, shouldn't the burden of proof be on the tech critics?
By the way, my favorite critic in the piece is Alan Eaton, the school's Latin teacher, who calls the new tech a "catastrophe" and blames it for a steady decline in attendance in his advanced classes. Latin! You can't make this stuff up. Why on earth are these children choosing to spend time exploring the communicative possibilities of new software when they can learn the communicative properties of a language no one has spoken for five hundred years? If Facebook and Twitter only manage to eliminate Latin from the extended options of a good high school education, they will have done us all a great service.