The Raising of Children in a Digital Age

The title of this post is identical to the title of a letter in “READER COME HOME: The Reading Brain in the Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. Wolf refers to her chapters as letters. Wolf writes: “The tough questions raised in the previous letters come to roost like chickens on a fence in the raising of our children. They require of us a developmental version of the issues summarized to this point: Will time-consuming, cognitively demanding deep-reading processes atrophy or be gradually lost within a culture whose principle mediums advantage speed, immediacy, high levels of stimulation, multitasking and large amount of information?”

She continues, “Loss, however, in this question implies the existence of a well-formed, fully elaborated circuitry. The reality is that each new reader—that is, each child—must build a wholly new reading circuit. Our children can form a very simple circuit for learning to read and acquire a basic level of decoding, or they can go on to develop highly elaborated reading circuits that add more and more sophisticated intellectual processes over time.”

These not-yet-formed reading circuits present unique challenges and a complex set of questions: First, will the early-developing cognitive components of the reading circuit be altered by digital media before, while, and after children learn to read. What will happen to the development of their attention, memory, and background knowledge—processes known to be be affected in adults by multitasking, rapidity, and distraction? Second, if they are affected, will such changes alter the makeup of the resulting expert reading circuit and/or the motivation to form and sustain deep reading capacities? Finally, what can we do to address the potential negative effects of varied digital media on reading without losing their immensely positive contributions to children and to society?

The digital world grabs children. A 2015 RAND study reported the average amount of time spent by three-to-five year old children on digital devices was four hours a day, with 75% of children from zero to eight years old having access to digital devices. This figure is up from 52% only two years earlier. The use of digital devices increased by 117% in just one year. Our evolutionary reflex, the lovely bias pulls our attention immediately toward anything new. The neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says, “Humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we will to get a meal or a mate…In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers become rewarded for processing tiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward and forgo the short one.”

Levitin claims that children can become so accustomed to a continuous stream of competitors for their attention that their brains are for all purposes being bathed in hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, the hormones more commonly associated with fight, flight, and stress. Children three, or four, or sometimes even two and younger—but they are first passively receiving and then, ever so gradually requiring the levels of stimulation of much older children on a regular basis.

The Stanford University neuroscientist Poldrack and his team has found that some digitally raised youth can multitask if they have been trained sufficiently on one of the tasks. Unfortunately, not enough information is reported to evaluate this claim, other than to leave it open and look to further research to see how these skills can develop.

Wolfe raises legitimate concerns. Much research is needed. But the hope is that damaging effects can be eliminated or minimized. Perhaps even certain types of training with certain types of individuals can be done to minimize the costs of multitasking.

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