March 04, 2016

A boy takes selfies on the classroom iPad

A boy takes selfies on the classroom iPad. Credit: Zach Frailey / Flickr Creative Commons

Technology has become increasingly accessible to kids. But what is its real impact?

“The concern is that a characteristic of digital technologies is that they demand very rapid shifts of attention,” says Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book Raising Kids Who Read.

The advent of the Internet means that a child’s attention is constantly spread out over several things at once. Reading is no longer a go-to activity when a kid is bored.

But Willingham - who studies the impact of technology on kids’ concentration - says that there just isn’t enough evidence to say definitively that digital technologies take away from reading.

There was, however, a time in America’s history where reading was at its highest. “I think the golden era was probably depression era, maybe into the 40s and until television,” he says, “Reading did take a hit with the advent of television.”

Now, there’s debate as to whether or not we should count reading on Twitter or Facebook as real reading.

“A lot of the reading that kids do on screens [is] not especially enriching,” says Willingham.

The issue of kids not reading comes down to how they handle boredom -- something that they will eventually encounter in school.

“I think the problem is real, but I don’t think the problem is that they can’t pay attention, I think it’s that they don’t want to pay attention... Being bored is good for the sake of making children more resourceful in figuring out themselves how not to be bored.”

Willingham argues that, if anything, digital technologies are responsible for a shift in kids’ beliefs that they should be entertained all the time.

Parents tell him that their primary concern is that their kids spend too much time plopped in front of a screen. And, WIllingham says, if you want to wean the kids away, it might mean helping them - and “helping” is the key - acclimate to a slower-paced world.

childhood, Education, Daniel Willingham

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