Fighting Digital Dumbness
by Michael Ragozzino
Private Tutor, Main Line Philadelphia
There is no doubt: the technology boom has brought sweeping changes to America’s culture. We have become wired—through our computers and our phones, our televisions and our video games. Worldwide, no group has been more affected than the current crop of American teenagers. The constant barrage of flashing packets of information and advertising leaves our students far more distracted, branded, and prone to boredom than their counterparts of just ten years ago. All of this “progress” has led to a disturbing trend I’ve witnessed in my students: They are having more and more difficulty following along with complex logical arguments. As a result, grades fall, test scores plummet, and many graduating seniors are ill-prepared for the challenges of college.
Faced with the overwhelming—and always growing--force of technology, the big question for parents and educators is: “What can we do?” Of course no one answer will solve the problem, but here are a few techniques that I’ve found helpful when working with my tutoring students.
1. Whoa! Slow Down that Entertainment Train!
As one of my students put it, “Boredom is the WORST! Telling someone you’re bored when you’re with them is worse than telling them you hate them.” This wasn’t the case just ten years ago, but today’s teenagers have been constantly entertained from the moment they arrived home from the hospital. As they grew, so did their appetite for that entertainment. Movies, television shows, and video games continue to get louder, choppier, and flashier. While this might be great for hand-eye coordination, it’s terrible for focus, concentration, and deep thought—the most important qualities required for learning.
The good news is that the human brain is remarkably adaptable, meaning a little unplugging can go a long way.
Encourage your kids to read for pleasure by taking them to the library or bookstore and showing them how to find books that they might like. (You do this by reading the back cover and then opening to a random page to see if the style grabs you). Read the books they’re reading and talk about them the same way you would a movie or television show.
Plan a NON-VIDEO game night. Chess, checkers, Monopoly, Risk, Axis and Allies, Scrabble--the list goes on and on. Introduce them to your old favorites or learn a new game together, preferably something that requires some strategy and a little bit of patience. Bridge may sound like grandma’s game, but not one student I’ve ever taught to play bridge has ever disliked it.
The list of activities that don’t include flashing pixels is endless. Toss the ball around, hop on a bike, or take up Frisbee golf. Even teach your children how to cook or bake (or, as in my case, learn together).
2. The Three Day Unplug
We’re supposed to be the masters of our gadgets but it often ends up feeling the other way around. Whether it’s a camping trip to the middle of No-Reception Land, or a household-wide declaration of non-techiness, students will always benefit from a vacation from their technology. No computer, no television, and phones stay off unless it’s an absolute emergency. Of course they’ll whine and complain about how they “can’t live without texting or Facebook,” but once they do it, they’ll be surprised at how good it feels—and you will, too. The mach-10 at which we live may have its “productivity” advantages, but it also brings on a lot of anxiety.
3. Wait? That can actually be BAD for me?
Many students simply aren’t aware of the drawbacks of today’s technology. Sit down with your children and have a discussion about how too much technological noise can impact their abilities to focus, concentrate, and think deeply. For a primer on the subject—and a great conversation starter—listen to this program from NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook about how digital technology is rewiring our brains:
4. It starts with Mom and Dad
I’m not so sure this should be a separate bullet point on my list because this idea is the most important. Digital media is an easy way to keep ourselves and our children entertained, especially in such a fast-paced and work-centric society. Still, if you’ve read this far you’re obviously a concerned parent who wants to do well for your children. That means that you need to make two extremely important decisions: set an example by occasionally denying your own digital addiction, and take some time to help your children overcome theirs.
Now signing up students for the fall SATs and ACTs.