Digital defeat

Are social media and technology killing our kids' ability to read? Yvonne Walus investigates.

My children used to be bookworms. I would come home in the evening to silence and a tidy house, with each child deep in the world of Zac Powers or Melodie The Music Fairy. Before long, my biggest problem was how to keep up with the demand for age-appropriate books and how to discourage my 10-year-old from reading The Hunger Games. Roll on Intermediate School and the need for smart phones (to check the bus time table, read the school notices, text your parents and reassure them that you got home safely – yeah, right). Suddenly, my children were reading memes instead of books, and watching YouTube rather than Planet Earth. But wait, it gets worse. I am a self-confessed bookaholic, and proud of it. Or perhaps I used to be? While I still read books, of course, I find that my reading sessions don’t last quite as long as they used to. I get distracted by incoming messages, the desire to see who posted what on Instagram, or the fact it’s time to make dinner. Say what? Since when do I prioritise dinner over the latest Lee Child thriller? Have books grown less addictive, or is there another explanation?

 

The experts say

Think about the way that we (and our children) read information online: We click on a link that catches our interest, we read a couple of sentences, scan for exciting words, get the gist of the article or get bored, click on something else. Social media posts and emails are no different – If it’s not bullet points or under 20 words, we tend to gloss over it. And it’s not just online reading anymore. Many of us find that we’re behaving that way with a book as well, with eyes passing over the words but the mind not taking in the meaning. Before the Internet, we would read linearly: Page one, then page two, all the way to the end. Sometimes we’d go back to refresh our memory. Sometimes we’d go to the end to find out what happened. In a textbook, we might have looked at the table of contents. But generally, we’d stick with that one book without starting another one, and we’d go from a well-defined beginning to a well-defined end. Reading online is different. Pictures, clickbait, adverts, calls to action – they all invite us to jump from site to site and from one topic to another. There is too much information and our brains are forced to deal with the avalanche in a nonlinear fashion by skimming, looking for key words, scrolling, skipping. For many people, this style of reading is quickly becoming the norm.

 

Technology

Neuroscientists are fascinated by this change in reading techniques, and they think that we may be developing new brain circuits for dealing with the sheer quantity of digital information. This alternative way of reading, they claim, may be replacing the more traditional wiring that gave us the skill of “deep reading” centuries ago (the ability to read a lot of words and extract meaning from them). Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist, says, “The superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing.” This sound-byte way of reading is called “fast” or “shallow”, because it allows trawling and filtering of information, at the expense of deeper insight. And yet “deep reading” is a crucial skill if we’re to understand complex ideas. A growing concern is that children’s exposure to electronic devices at home and the e-learning trend at schools may stunt their ability to learn by reading. Already, university professors are reporting that today’s students cannot read the complex sentences of Henry James or George Eliot. Research is showing that students’ comprehension of online text is not as deep as when they read the same text in print. And when a paragraph is more than a few sentences long, children consider it too difficult.

 

Stop the Internet, I’m getting off?

Experts point out that there are advantages to both ways of reading. Our children can learn to shallow-read in order to find the right article, and then to deep-read in order to understand a new concept. So how do we teach them to deep-read? The ability to stay focussed is more than just a matter of individual personality; our brains are malleable and they can change. While it seems that online technology has taught us a different way of absorbing information, we can re-learn how to read the old way, both for pleasure and for deeper understanding. We can reclaim reading slowly and in-depth, while thinking and savouring the words. Research has demonstrated that mindfulness and meditation could help us extend our attention span. Another way we can focus on what we’re reading is to jot down key words and phrases, preferably in pen on paper, not by typing. This trick is also useful when we want to stop reading to check when the next Star Wars movie will be out: Write down a reminder, and keep reading. Psychologist Michael Pietrus from University of Chicago sums it up best: “The biggest thing is to increase awareness and understanding of what social media and technology are doing to us. Once we acknowledge the potential effects on our brains, we can make better-informed choices about our actions and behavioural patterns.”

 

Is technology causing ADHD?

Scientists are quick to point out that the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is more than just a preference for bullet points or shorter emails. ADHD is a medical condition, accompanied by differences in brain development and brain activity. The new way of skim-reading may result in healthy individuals exhibiting symptoms resembling some ADHD behaviours, but it can’t “give” us this disorder.

 

Yvonne Walus is an education specialist, senior consultant to Creative Learning Systems in Auckland, and a mother of two children.
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