Dickensian fantasy

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What’s the matter with kids today?

September 16th, 2012

According to Don Sawyer, former director of Okanagan College’s International Development Centre, in 2008 only 45.7 percent of Americans read literature—defined as novels, nurse short stories or poetry. This is a 10 percent decline since 1982, a loss of 20 million readers, largely due to the introduction of home computers. In the following essay, which originally appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of BCBW, Sawyer looks at how electronic media is also affecting our children—whose IQs are collectively dropping.

More than 40 years ago, Canadian media guru and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who coined the term “global village,” saw, with astonishing prescience, how the move from print to electronic media was having, and would continue to have, a profound impact on every aspect of our lives.

The introduction of new communication technologies, McLuhan said, is not a moral issue, good or bad, but one that carries great dangers because of our inability to understand them: “There can only be disaster arising from unawareness of the causalities and effects inherent in our technologies.”

To say that we are living in a rapidly changing world may be the biggest understatement in human history. The internet has only been generally accessible to the public for about ten years. In 2004, 71% of Canadian households owned a computer, nearly twice as many as in 1998. In 2009, more people reported accessing news via the internet than a newspaper.

While the full social effects of this breathtakingly rapid move to electronic media may not be fully recognizable, it is reasonable to expect to see the outcomes first, and most dramatically, in those most immersed in these new technologies, our children. And while the jury is still out, the results are unsettling.

For the first time in a century, children’s IQ scores are dropping. A 2008 British study indicates that for those in the upper half of the intelligence scale, average IQ scores were six points lower than 28 years ago.

A study commissioned by Lloyds of London showed that the average attention span had fallen to just 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes 10 years ago, with youth showing the most dramatic declines.

There are indications that increasing use of computer games may result in neurological changes resulting from constant downshifting to primitive fight or flight responses built into most games. These could habituate the brain to a need for extreme experience or even chronically affect blood pressure and anxiety.

The overuse of computers during children’s early development may also cause the prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotion, complex thought, and problem solving) to become idle resulting in a lazy or underdeveloped capacity for critical thinking and emotional empathy.

Some studies indicate that the vocabulary of the typical American teen of today is less than half the size of the vocabulary of a teenager in the 1950s, representing not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think.

In an American survey, teenagers were able to recognize over 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants and animals native to their locality.

Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20 year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

On average, Americans aged 15-24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time reading.

So what’s going on? And what does it all mean? The first question is easier to answer. Dr. Richard House, a British researcher on the effects television has on children, puts it succinctly: “Taking these findings [on reduced attention spans] at face value, it appears that there is something happening to teenagers. Computer games and computer culture has led to a decrease in reading books.”

New Zealand intelligence expert James Flynn concurs: “The demands made on teenagers’ brainpower by today’s youth culture may be stagnating. Leisure time is increasingly taken up with playing computer games and watching TV instead of reading and holding conversations.”

American educator and researcher Jane Healy writes, “The way children use computers may have powerful long-term effects on their minds. The main reason, of course, is that using any medium affects the underlying neural circuitry that is being established during childhood and adolescence. Before parents and educators become too excited about children using computers, the long-lasting neurological impacts must be taken into account.”

Indeed. But can we? McLuhan would seem to suggest that we can’t. He tells us that we may be doomed to blunder deeper into the computer age oblivious to the social consequences. At best, perhaps, we can only wonder, as Samuel Morse did in the first telegraph message he sent in 1844, “What hath God wrought?” Presumably, time will answer this question for us. But be careful. Those objects in your rear view mirror? They’re closer than they appear.

Essay Date: 2009

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