Distracted by the data

Wired has an incisive article looking at the science behind the ‘technology and multi-tasking are damaging the brain’ scare stories that regularly make the media.

The piece does a fantastic job of actually looking at specific studies on multi-tasking and distraction and questioning whether the ‘tech scare’ headlines are warranted given the findings.

The conclusion is neither that ‘all is well’ or that ‘we are all doomed’ but that we really have very little data – although none of it so far has given any credence to popular concerns that technology is impairing our intelligence.

The piece also hits on the crucial idea that talking of ‘technology’ or the ‘internet’ as a coherent whole is unhelpful because it has such different forms each with potentially different effects:

A solid consensus on digital multitasking is unlikely to be reached anytime soon, perhaps because the internet and technology are so broadly encompassing, and there are so many different ways we consume media. Psychological studies have seen a mix of results with different types of technology. For example, some data shows that gamers are better at absorbing and reacting to information than nongamers. In contrast, years of evidence suggest that television viewing has a negative impact on teenagers’ ability to concentrate. The question arises whether tech-savvy multitaskers could consume different types of media more than others and/or be affected in diffferent ways.

A research paper authored by a group of cognitive scientists titled “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse” (pdf) sums it up best:

“One can no more ask, ‘How is technology affecting cognitive development?’ than one can ask, ‘How is food affecting physical development?’” the researchers wrote. “As with food, the effects of technology will depend critically on what type of technology is consumed, how much of it is consumed, and for how long it is consumed.”

There are some quotes from me included, but don’t let that put you off, as it remains a lively discussion of the science behind a common 21st century talking point.

Link to Wired piece on media, technology and brain studies.

2 thoughts on “Distracted by the data”

  1. This is a useful article, thanks for writing about it. I’d like to see more of this quality. I think the questions raised remain very important. As we become more embedded in different kinds of technology and media, we adapt to them, with neither disastrous nor universally wondrous consequences, but they do have very significant impact on specific areas of our lives. Multitasking limitations do affect traffic collision statistics. Different media do require different approaches toward teaching thinking and research skills. The more we know about the details of how culture changes affect specific kinds of things, the more effectively and proactively we can adapt to use them better. The temptation to just assume that change is good and everything will work itself out in time is very strong. And of course for some, that apparent complacency leads to the temptation to yell “the sky is falling!”

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