Bird Brains and Screen Junkies

A friend shared a frightening article on social media the other day, on the terrifying effects of electronic gadgets on the minds of young children. Many parents today have a love-hate relationship with tablets, smart phones, computers, and game systems: they see educational benefits, entertainment options, and opportunities to reward or punish, but they also have an instinctive (if not firsthand) sense that time spent on these gadgets is not quality time and fosters ugly attitudes and habits in their progeny.

But this article goes further, relating a story of a boy whose early and constant exposure to electronics put him in a nearly catatonic state–and comparing the effects of on-screen stimuli on the brain (unfavorably) to that of hard drugs. Interestingly, the article also mentions that many leaders in technology innovation avoid exposing their children to technology or tech-enhanced classrooms early on.

Why would the innovators and promoters of a particular industry shelter their children from its effects?

In the 1980s, when the movement to bring computers into classrooms began to take root, the great conservative thinker Russell Kirk began writing and speaking about the negative impact that would have on the minds of our youngsters. He pointed even earlier, to the middle of the 20th century, as evidence that the impact of technology and information would not yield the results we hoped:

“One of the grave faults of American schooling, at every level, is the eagerness to embrace the newest gadget (mechanical or intellectual) at the expense of the tested tools of learning. Some will remember how, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, we were told that audio-visual aids would supplant the teacher for most purposes. At gigantic public expense, film-projectors, sound systems, and other impedimenta virtually were thrust upon every school. Most of this hardware soon was locked away in closets, where it reposed until obsolete. Some firms made a great deal of money from selling it.

Like birds, boys and girls flit from flower to flower, watching the flickering screen, never settling long enough to learn anything important.

“Effective teaching still is done by effective live teachers. “Programmed learning” was another step toward the vaunted Information Revolution. By and large, programmed learning did not work well. A human being talking with other human beings, and an antiquated tool called a book, have had more satisfactory results as far as genuine development of young intellects is concerned. Television certainly worked a revolution. But does anyone still maintain that the boob-tube has improved the minds of the young? Certainly, television opened the way for an even fuller Information Revolution. The apologists for television used to tell us that their darling has moulded the minds of “the best informed generation in the history of America.” Also, it has moulded the minds of the most ignorant generation in America, if we are to judge by the much-applauded recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, “A Nation at Risk.” As a witty friend of mine says, “This is the bird-brained generation.” He does not mean that young people have brains the size of birds; instead, that like birds, boys and girls flit from flower to flower, watching the flickering screen, never settling long enough to learn anything important.”

I suspect the New York Post writer in the opening article, and/or the mother featured in the article, may have downplayed the extent to which the child was onscreen, to play up the idea that this could happen to you and your child, too. But I also don’t think this story can be dismissed as simply bad parenting. I know how easily I can be sucked into my smartphone and mindlessly scroll through information that has no bearing on anything of importance or concern to me. I know how fragmented my own thinking can become as a result–how much clutters my head, how unfocused and impatient I am–and what a relief it can be to step away.

Imagine, then, the impact on a child whose brain actually develops and shapes along these lines?

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