Monday 30 May 2011

The Screenager

I came across a new word this week in Richard Watson’s Future Minds: screenager. While the wiggly red underline tells me it’s a new word to Microsoft too, Google reports over 200,000 instances and the OED’s earliest citation is from 1994. The definition is guessable and refers to teenagers (the OED graciously includes twenty-somethings) who have grown up having had the majority of their world mediated by a screen, be it television, computer, or mobile phone.

Watson is a futurologist (no red line, half the number of hits and 1967) who is exploring the ways in which technology has changed the way in which we are thinking and arguing for the need to include ‘deep thinking’ in our mental diet. His book includes many similar ideas to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and many of the points that are made in both texts are important for people to consider.

I was first aware that technology had physically changed me when, after getting broadband installed at home in 1997 (even though I had been accessing the Internet over a dialup connection since 1993), I was spending much more time online staring at the screen and I had to start wearing glasses. In reading these books, I am also now able to recognise the changes in the way I am thinking.

I feel in a privileged position as I am adept at using the new technologies and endeavour to embrace them but I can also – with a little effort – sustain a far more focused approach to reading or writing and I am just about happy to manage a few days without Internet access as travelling abroad sometimes enforces (although I am, admittedly, always pleased when my phone logs onto a free wireless network).

As teachers we are told that our students need short activities to keep their attention; indeed, research shows this is more effective in helping learning. However, this is pandering to the rewired brains of the screenager. Carr cites research which shows how quickly the brain will rewire and retrain itself (a mere five hours of using the Internet showed changes occurring in an adult’s brain) so the reverse - undoing these changes - must also be true.

While writing this, I have Facebook open in another browser tab, but I am refusing to allow myself to switch to it as I know it will distract me (and I firmly believe that we are not as competent at multitasking as people believe, regardless of alleged gender differences). In doing this I am making myself concentrate on writing this blog and thereby forcing myself to think more ‘deeply’.

I think adults – and in particular teachers – need to bear this in mind and young people should be made aware of it. When our minds jump rapidly from one thing to another we are living a very superficial mental existence. We need to take time and, if necessary force ourselves to, engage more completely in what we are doing. However, the engagement may also be in time away from the screen: time in which to reflect on what we have said or read or heard or written.

In allowing our brains to have been rewired to process information (and I chose my words carefully) more like a computer, we are – arguably – losing one of the most important things which makes us human and many of us simply need to take time, make space, and think.

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