An Apple® a Day Keeps Attention Away

From kindergarten to college, the US education system is investing more and more into putting iPads, e-readers, interactive whiteboards, and other “educational technologies” into the classroom. With more frequent in-class use of spell-check, calculators, and the Internet, digital tech is no longer limited to weekly IT lessons in designated computer rooms; nowadays it wouldn’t be uncommon to walk into a kindergarten classroom and find a stack of iPads in the corner. And with some (like Fast Company, in a 2015 article) estimating $10 billion per year invested into classroom technology, it seems it is here to stay.

But is this necessarily a good thing? Are these digital tools actually helping our children’s education experience? More importantly, is it helping to shape our children into the well-rounded individuals we want them to be? With the ubiquity of digital technology still relatively new, it’s not yet possible to study the long-term effects of being constantly plugged in, but researchers have already noted some changes these technologies have brought to today’s youngsters. Findings range from the tame and expected to—in some cases—the downright alarming.

In the Classroom
With so much money being invested in so-called educational technology per year, educators want to know that they’re getting enough bang for their buck. They also want to know if they are actually improving the state of education. And are they? Well, not really. A study in 2015 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—an international group dedicated to global improvement in social and economic well-being—found that, when it comes to technology (as with all things), moderation is key. By looking at test scores, the study found that students with limited classroom access to digital technology performed only marginally better than students without it. Of the three groups of students, those with at least an hour’s access to these devices per day were the worst academic performers. This trend is continued on a global scale. It was found that a country’s heavy investment in technology offered “no appreciable improvement” in test scores, and that some of the world’s top performers, like Korea, were countries with the lowest technology investment. With so little substantial benefit, why are we investing so much in technology, and could we be paying for it with more than just the money?

Networked digital devices are changing the way we receive information, and in response, our brains are changing how we process that information. A study conducted by Dr. Gary Small in 2007 found that exposure to the Internet for five hours a day over just a six-day period had altered the neural pathways in his subjects’ brains. This altered brain activity shortens our attention span and affects our memories. It’s an effect which is particularly prominent in children, whose brains are malleable and still maturing. According to a study by Microsoft in 2015, our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight—shorter than that of a goldfish—in just 15 years. Not being able to offer as much attention to the task at hand can affect a child’s ability to take in and retain information, which explains why the frequent use of technology in school could be impacting test scores.

In the Brain
In generations past, a lot of children’s time was spent reading. Reading is a distraction-free activity, which requires prolonged attention and imagination, and promotes logical thinking and creativity in children. By contrast, networked digital services are designed for distractions; with more media at a child’s fingertips, there’s less need for constant attention and imagination. This decreased imaginative activity can affect a child’s play, their interaction with others, and their problem-solving skills.

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Even reading digital books does not have the same benefits as “analog” reading. When reading on screens, we’re more likely to skim the information than to focus entirely on the text before us. This inhibits the imagination even further, encourages the reader to take in less information, and discourages memory recall. This limitation that technology places on our brains affects not only our performance in the classroom, but even our relationships.

In Relationships
It’s been known for a long time that the Internet is changing the way we interact. With social media like Facebook and Twitter, “socializing” no longer has to mean seeing people face-to-face. These tools can be great to keep long-distance friendships and relationships going, but can negatively affect the relationships that are closer to home, and even hinder our own emotional well-being. A study by Robert Kraut in 1998 found that teenagers who spent more time online actually experienced less social interaction and expressed more feelings of loneliness and depression.

Digital communications are impacting adolescents’ abilities to interact in the real world. With a lot of their communication taking place online, they struggle to initiate genuine interactions in person, handle conflict, and read body language, according to child psychologist Melissa Ortega, from a 2011 interview with the Huffington Post. This could result in difficulties maintaining long-term, meaningful relationships, and can even have an impact on our careers, with job interviews and workplace communication being key factors in employability.

A 1967 study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that 38% of communication of feelings and meaning is expressed through vocal signals (the way we raise or lower or voice and emphasize certain words as we speak), 55% is expressed through body language and visual cues, and only 7% of meaning of conveyed through the actual words we choose. This means that by communicating through text-based means like social media, we’re losing 93% of our communicative expression.

But social media isn’t the only culprit. The effects of digital devices on memory and attention are now taking place earlier and earlier in children’s lives, changing the way we interact with each other. Paying less attention, we connect less deeply with others. We’ve outsourced information about our loved ones, like birthdays, to Facebook. And as we live more of our lives online, we’re participating in fewer memorable experiences with others in person.

What’s the Answer?
The OECD suggests that while some uses of technology such as the use of interactive whiteboard and educational digital games can help to engage pupils in their learning material in new, innovative ways relative to their own interests, it should be utilized properly. It recommends training teachers to use technology, but to maintain “a healthy skepticism” about its use in the classroom. Access to it should be limited and always under supervision. If teachers remain focused on the goals of education—group interaction, proactive learning, and information retention—then students can gain benefits from technology without letting it limit their potential.