Friday, March 31, 2006

Generation M

One of the biggest challenges for our family, as our kids have gotten older, has been to decide how much access to media our teens and pre-teens are going to be allowed to have. In today's world, we can't ban technology from our lives, nor do we want to--and yet, it's been difficult to decide how much of a good thing we should allow them--and ourselves.

The media rules in our home include the following. In general, we don't watch TV and we only watch movies on the weekends. The screen is OFF on Monday through Thursday and limited on weekends. We don't have any video games and just a few computer games, which the boys are allowed to play only if their other work is done, and they are supposed to read an hour for every half hour they play games. (This rule needs to be better enforced, but that is the guideline, and they know it.) We encourage listening to music and audio books.

Managing the Internet has been our biggest challenge, though. Since we homeschool, it is a way that our 13-year-old daughter keeps in touch with her friends. They email and IM (instant message) each other, and set up profiles on different sites where they can post pictures and leave comments for each other. Some of them even have blogs. (Internet safety issues are a topic unto themselves which I'm not going to go into here, except to say that we're hyper-vigilant.)

You've all heard about the frog in a pot of water who can be boiled to death without awareness if the temperature of the water increases slowly enough. Well, the way that media becomes a bigger and bigger part of anyone's life--but especially children's lives--can be the same way. It happened that way with our kids. First an email account, so they could practice their keyboarding skills by emailing their grandparents and a few friends. Then how to Google for information--and soon they had favorite websites like the Lego and American Girl sites. Before long they were no longer asking if they could get on the computer, but just hopping on, so we had to set up passwords so they had to go back to asking. Then, maybe at a friend's house, they set up an IM account and soon they're IM'ing whenever they get a chance and constantly fooling with their profile, their "away" message--it goes on and on.

We've had to put time limits on how much they're allowed to be on the computer, and according to them, an hour a day is not enough. Now they think they need cell phones and iPods--and we're asking ourselves "What is going on here?"

This article
explains what is going on, all across the country:
Fifteen years ago, most home computers weren't even linked to the Internet. In 1990 the majority of adolescents responding to a survey done by Donald Roberts, a professor of communication at Stanford, said the one medium they couldn't live without was a radio/CD player. How quaint. In a 2004 follow-up, the computer won hands down.

Today 82% of kids are online by the seventh grade, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And what they love about the computer, of course, is that it offers the radio/CD thing and so much more--games, movies, e-mail, IM, Google, MySpace. The big finding of a 2005 survey of Americans ages 8 to 18 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, co-authored by Roberts, is not that kids were spending a larger chunk of time using electronic media--that was holding steady at 6.5 hours a day (could it possibly get any bigger?)--but that they were packing more media exposure into that time: 8.5 hours' worth, thanks to "media multitasking"--listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and IMing friends all at the same time. Increasingly, the media-hungry members of Generation M, as Kaiser dubbed them, don't just sit down to watch a TV show with their friends or family. From a quarter to a third of them, according to the survey, say they simultaneously absorb some other medium "most of the time" while watching TV, listening to music, using the computer or even while reading.

Some implications:

As for multitasking devices, social scientists and educators are just beginning to assess their impact, but the researchers already have some strong opinions. The mental habit of dividing one's attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work and understand the world. Although such habits may prepare kids for today's frenzied workplace, many cognitive scientists are positively alarmed by the trend. "Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks. Some are concerned about the disappearance of mental downtime to relax and reflect. Roberts notes Stanford students "can't go the few minutes between their 10 o'clock and 11 o'clock classes without talking on their cell phones. It seems to me that there's almost a discomfort with not being stimulated--a kind of 'I can't stand the silence.'"

Gen M's multitasking habits have social and psychological implications as well. If you're IMing four friends while watching That '70s Show, it's not the same as sitting on the couch with your buddies or your sisters and watching the show together. Or sharing a family meal across a table. Thousands of years of evolution created human physical communication--facial expressions, body language--that puts broadband to shame in its ability to convey meaning and create bonds. What happens, wonders UCLA's Ochs, as we replace side-by-side and eye-to-eye human connections with quick, disembodied e-exchanges? Those are critical issues not just for social scientists but for parents and teachers trying to understand--and do right by--Generation M.

Some fascinating brain research:

When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer--often double the time or more--to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: "The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large--amazingly so." Meyer frequently tests Gen M students in his lab, and he sees no exception for them, despite their "mystique" as master multitaskers. "The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once," he says. "If a teenager is trying to have a conversation on an e-mail chat line while doing algebra, she'll suffer a decrease in efficiency, compared to if she just thought about algebra until she was done. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With such complicated tasks [you] will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multitasking. It just can't be, any more than the best of all humans will ever be able to run a one-minute mile."

Other research shows the relationship between stimulation and performance forms a bell curve: a little stimulation--whether it's coffee or a blaring soundtrack--can boost performance, but too much is stressful and causes a fall-off. In addition, the brain needs rest and recovery time to consolidate thoughts and memories. Teenagers who fill every quiet moment with a phone call or some kind of e-stimulation may not be getting that needed reprieve. Habitual multitasking may condition their brain to an overexcited state, making it difficult to focus even when they want to.

A helpful perspective for parents of teenagers:
The online environment, she points out, "is less risky if you are lonely and afraid of intimacy, which is almost a definition of adolescence. Things get too hot, you log off, while in real time and space, you have consequences." Teen venues like MySpace, Xanga and Facebook--and the ways kids can personalize their IM personas--meet another teen need: the desire to experiment with identity. By changing their picture, their "away" message, their icon or list of favorite bands, kids can cycle through different personalities. "Online life is like an identity workshop," says Turkle, "and that's the job of adolescents--to experiment with identity."

All that is probably healthy, provided that parents set limits on where their kids can venture online, teach them to exercise caution and regulate how much time they can spend with electronics in general. The problem is that most parents don't. According to the Kaiser survey, only 23% of seventh- to 12th-graders say their family has rules about computer activity; just 17% say they have restrictions on video-game time.

The bottom line:

For all the handwringing about Generation M, technology is not really the problem. "The problem," says Hallowell, "is what you are not doing if the electronic moment grows too large"--too large for the teenager and too large for those parents who are equally tethered to their gadgets. In that case, says Hallowell, "you are not having family dinner, you are not having conversations, you are not debating whether to go out with a boy who wants to have sex on the first date, you are not going on a family ski trip or taking time just to veg. It's not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it's what you are not doing that's going to rot your life."

Generation M has a lot to teach parents and teachers about what new technology can do. But it's up to grownups to show them what it can't do, and that there's life beyond the screen.

Aye. And that's harder than it ought to be, I think.

Anyone else dealing with this issue?


Jennifer said...

On a slightly related note, you might enjoy this post about the intersection of healing prayer and the online friendship

At A Hen's Pace said...

Jennifer--I finally got around to it, and yes, I DID enjoy it. Very interesting "flip side."

Anonymous said...

yes but it is more me than my kids at this point. My oldest would rather read a good book, and my youngest would rather play with dolls.