Posts Tagged ‘parents’

Always on? The horror!

January 25, 2010

Everyone’s chattering about the NYT article “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online” which references the Kaiser Family Foundation’s study “Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago” (Download a .pdf of the full report here). The article’s premise is that with the popularity of smart phones and other devices (and wireless access/3g) that support ubiquitous mobile computing, teens spend nearly all of their waking time “connected”. And this, the article seems to imply, is a negative thing.

The study claims that “heavy media users report getting lower grades”. The study doesn’t claim a cause-and-effect relationship when it comes to media usage and school performance as measured by grades; they say “about half (47%0 of heavy media users say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower), compared to about a quarter (23%) of light users”. And they say that media usage by minority students is up: “The heaviest media users, the study found, are black and Hispanic youths and “tweens,” or those ages 11 to 14 (NYT Article).” What implications does increased media usage by young people and minority youth in particular have for the so-called “achievement gap”?

Does increased use of digital media necessarily equate to a decreased use of print media? And does this mean students who are heavy media users will then do more poorly in school than those who read bound books on paper?

It all comes back to this question of whether or not media use is changing the way that we think. Well, in my opinion it is unquestionable. Yes, it does, it has to.  I don’t buy that Google is making us stupid, a reductionist, alarmist, and I think, misguided argument–our attention spans are supposedly decreased because of hypertext. RSS makes us lazy. We lose the ability to read Dostoevsky or Proust because we are used to reading that which is brief, incoherent, detached. The penchant for multitasking that technology engenders makes us distractable. We start to understand “lackadaisical” spellings like “Whr R U”, BRB, and LOL.

The comments on the NY Times article reflect the fear of this increased media use. Many of the comments vilify the technology, implying that it is addictive and warn parents not to let kids have access to smart phones and other media because “once they start they can’t stop”–set boundaries, limit use.

These arguments seem silly to me because I don’t share the beliefs of technological determinism that they assume. Instead, I tend to believe that social structures play a role in how these technologies are taken up and employed. I definitely think that they are taken up with enthusiasm and allowed to thrive because of a synergy of various factors. Take Twitter for example. It has been around for years but only recently exploded. The affordances of this application didn’t change, but I think that social factors became such that it became a relevant entity. The perfect storm of consumer demand, trends and fads, and the prevalence of smart phones certainly contributed to its exploding popularity, along with other factors.

But at the same time, I believe the way people make sense of and take up the affordances of new communications technologies are vital to the significance of the media themselves. BUT the affordances of these technologies do affect the ways that users communicate. The medium is not neutral. It has an impact on the way that we encode information–in the larger sense, though it’s cultural impact (as technologies effects on culture and what is valued in terms of content, form, and function), but in the immediate sense, through what we can actually do with the medium (think Twitter and it’s 140 characters, blogs and their supposed interactivity, or real-time textual chat, etc).

The conservative arguments that take an alarmist, fearful view of the changes technology supposedly cause in our language, society, and culture, are reminiscent of Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, who warned against the mental changes that writing would cause, as people began to rely less on their memory in the shift from oral to scribal modes of information coding. I do think it important we examine the ways that our culture has changed as we moved from oral to scribal (as Havelock outlined) to typographical (as we see in Eisenstein) to now digital cultures (foretold by Ong and others). As Birkets reminds us, “it may be time to ask how modifications in our way of reading may impinge upon our mental life. For how we receive information bears vitally on the ways we experience and interpret reality” (p. 72). Now we see that notions of text are varied, including chat, Internet searches, and highly visually-dependent websites. The ways users expect to engage in literacy practices have changed, for one thing, but our “mental lives” have no doubt changed in other respects as well.

For a more optimistic view of youth media use, see Berkeley’s report on digital youth research under the direction of Mizuko Ito from 2008. The summary of the study’s final report asserts that “the digital world is creating new opportunities for youth to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression. These activities have captured teens’ attention because they provide avenues for extending social worlds, self-directed learning, and independence.” Read alongside the NYT article, one can’t help but notice that the NYT article fails to illuminate the important work that youth engage in during all this time that they are “connected”. They are engaging with a great variety of texts, and all kinds of modes of information representation–visual, auditory, etc. They’re writing fanfiction and participating in online communities of practice. They are doing important identity work using blogs, IM, and social networks. They “geek out” as Ito’s study puts it, exploring highly specialized content. They are shaping their own realities. I think that kids do need balance and everything in life should be in moderation. But these articles that vilify technology use and express horror at changing times have a huge blind spot.