Last Sunday’s New York Times had a front-page article on the horrible negative effects that technology has on kids’ brains. The central character in the piece, Vishal, is a high school student from California who can’t manage to get through his summer reading assignment (Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) because he’s addicted to the constant pinging and flashing of YouTube and Facebook.
“I click and something happens,” he says, explaining that, by comparison, reading a book or doing homework is less exciting. “I guess it goes back to the immediate gratification thing.”
His grades have suffered noticeably, he’s opted for fewer advanced classes this year (but he still isn’t succeeding, we learn), and he probably won’t be able to get into any of the colleges he hopes to attend. But he’s getting really, really good at making YouTube videos.
It would be easy, of course, to say that technology is to blame here, especially since scientists have studied the developing brains of young people and concluded that their constant switching from one electronic device or application to another is having a noticeable impact on their attention spans.
But, of course, we shouldn’t be so hasty to simply put the problem squarely on the shoulders of our computers, cell phones, and video game consoles. The piece, if read carefully, isn’t really about technology doing bad things to your child’s brain, but that would be the easiest way to read it. It’s also, or perhaps mostly, about being a parent who takes an active role in your child’s life and makes the unpopular decision that, no, you can’t spend four hours playing video games after school, even if that decision makes you a Grumpy Gus.
The $2,000 computer Vishal is using is state of the art and only a week old. It represents a concession by his parents. They allowed him to buy it, despite their continuing concerns about his technology habits, because they wanted to support his filmmaking dream. “If we put roadblocks in his way, he’s just going to get depressed,” his mother says. Besides, she adds, “he’s been making an effort to do his homework.”
Now maybe I’m being dense.
But, really, the problem isn’t that the student would rather be making videos on his computer than reading (though, admittedly, as someone who loves to read, that seems like an intrinsic problem). A lot of young people (and even some old people) would rather play video games or scroll through friends’ pictures on Facebook than read Vonnegut.
To my mind, the problem is that the parents haven’t said something to the effect of: “First, you do your school work and then you can use the computer for a certain, limited amount of time. And if you don’t like that arrangement, you can do your school work and then not use your computer at all.”
Instead, they say things like this:
“If you’re not on top of technology, you’re not going to be on top of the world,” said John McMullen, 56, a retired criminal investigator whose son, Sean, is one of five friends in the group Vishal joins for lunch each day.
Sean’s favorite medium is video games; he plays for four hours after school and twice that on weekends. He was playing more but found his habit pulling his grade point average below 3.2, the point at which he felt comfortable. He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice.
I submit that Vishal’s parents probably shouldn’t have rewarded his poor academic performance with a $2,000 computer. And that it’s possible for Sean to be “on top of technology” without playing video games thirty-six hours a week. And that it’s desperately sad that these kids actually want their parents to step in and provide some rules, and that their parents are unwilling to do so. But maybe Sean’s dad will get the hint now that his son has told him about the problem on the front page of the New York Times.