From hand-held video games, to cell phones, to instant messaging and laptops, technology is everywhere.

Parents and educators have had long-standing concerns about the link between technology and learning. They worry about everything from loss of language skills, to attention deficit, to an overall impact on intelligence.

Is technology ‘dumbing down’ our kids?

“I don’t believe that technology can make someone dumber or smarter,” says Naomi Hupert, a senior researcher at the Center for Children and Technology in New York.

However, Hupert is careful to point out that there are some concerns about the impact of technology on children.  We don’t yet understand its overall impact and how it will affect us 20 to 30 years down the road, she says. 

"Depending on how you use it, your outcome varies,” Hupert says. Your child may learn a new language by using a CD-ROM or spend the same time shooting at “criminals” in a video game.

Language and Writing 

Maryanne Wolf warns that the reading brain may be lost to the digital culture.  She is the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. “We must work as a society to preserve the development of particular aspects of reading, both for this generation and for generations to come,” she wrote in her book, Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

These days, many children and teens use texting (text messaging) and instant messaging. And, even if you know what ROFL or LTR mean, the vast amount of acronyms, slang and new spellings used in texts can be bewildering. Hupert’s not convinced this negatively affects language. “It doesn’t mean that if you ‘text’ that you will write the way you text,” says Hupert. “People often learn various dialects and slang…[and we understand that there are] certain ways of writing that are appropriate for some environments and not for others.”

Wolf points out that 2,000 years ago Socrates warned against the use of the written word because it was a superficial way of learning. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press and the typewriter. All along, humans have managed to rewire their brains to adapt to new technologies and ways of communicating.

Social Skills and Attention Span

According to a study from California’s Kaiser Family Foundation, 8 to 18-year-olds spend about 6.5 hours a day consuming digital media and much of that time is spent media multitasking. Can that be good for kids? Shouldn’t that time be better spent outdoors with friends or reading the classics? “I think anything done to excess is excessive,” says Hupert. She goes on to say that this thinking applies to any task i.e. a child who spends all his time doing math homework, playing basketball, reading magazines or playing video games.

If a child spends an inordinate amount of time online or playing video games, you may want to enforce a time limit and/or get the whole family involved.  Many of today’s gaming systems have two, three or four player options – families can sing popular songs, try out new dances or compete in tennis together.  This alleviates some of the concerns around isolation and inactivity.

Overall, though, there’s no need to worry, says Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. He argues that from ages 8-18, the brain is still being built and that kids’ brains are becoming hard-wired to live in a digital culture. In other words, technology is literally rewriting their brains. In fact, he says, “the challenges of the Internet could actually provoke the Net Gener (11 to 30-year-old person) to do the hard thinking to make sense of a broader scope of information than the one that would have been available to the Boomer.”

Technology may actually have a positive impact on children with attention issues. Hupert says informal studies done where kids had ADD-like symptoms (inability to focus, hyperactivity) in classrooms “shined when they had to do a PowerPoint presentation.”

While Hupert and other educators aren’t sure what it is about technology that made the difference (more creativity? more freedom?), these exercises show that technology can be valuable when it comes to learning.


 

As parents and children are increasingly more reliant on technology to work, play and learn, we can breathe a little easier knowing that it can be a partner in the learning process. Taking part in educational online activities like those on TVOKids.com, playing games as a family on the Wii or reading slang-filled text messages may actually offer learning opportunities never before available.