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Facebook – an example of a social-media site – had over one billion active users in October 2012.


Changes them in ways that don’t help kids. Recently, we looked at why Steve Jobs was a low tech parent, and why it isn’t really all that surprising. One thing that high tech parents know is that the type of mental activity that social media encourage makes long-term learning difficult.

Not everyone has grasped the issues clearly, and that includes some major cultural figures: Canada’s Globe and Mail reported at the end of 2011,

Last week, Canadian author Margaret Atwood thrilled her 285,000-plus Twitter followers by defending their kind as “dedicated readers” who are boldly exploring new frontiers in literacy. Calling the Internet in general “a great literacy driver,” she defended even the most minimal form of screen-based reading as an unalloyed good – “because reading is in fact extremely interactive from a neurological point of view,” she said. “Your brain lights up a lot.”

Yes, but traffic signals light up a lot too. What does the pattern of brain signals mean?

A lot of activity can mean constant distraction rather than the deep attention required for transferring information from short to long term memory. One neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, puts the problem like this:

The hyperlinked, text-messaging screen shapes the mind quite differently than the book, according to Wolf. “It pulls attention with such rapidity it doesn’t allow the kind of deep, focused attention that reading a book 10 years ago invited,” she says. “It invites constant change of attention, it invites multitasking. It invites, in other words, a kind of triage of attention.”

As she goes on to note, while multitasking is a necessary skill today, it inhibits deep thought, of the sort that causes people to come up with creative new approaches or even develop new ideas or technology.

But don’t social media at least encourage reading? That is “techno-hype,” says reading expert Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto. Of course the student whapping through hundreds of social messages about trivia “reads.” But let’s not be blindsided by a false equivalence between reading as a mere act and the learning needed for life.

Many teens are blindsided, as the New York Times tells the story in Wired for Distraction:

By all rights, Vishal, a bright 17-year-old, should already have finished the book, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” his summer reading assignment. But he has managed 43 pages in two months.

He typically favors Facebook, YouTube and making digital videos. That is the case this August afternoon. Bypassing Vonnegut, he clicks over to YouTube, meaning that tomorrow he will enter his senior year of high school hoping to see an improvement in his grades, but without having completed his only summer homework.

On YouTube, “you can get a whole story in six minutes,” he explains. “A book takes so long. I prefer the immediate gratification.”

Of course he prefers immediate gratification. The Internet works that way. His calculus homework might not prove so forgiving, however, and it may make more of a difference to his future plans than awesome Facebook friends.

Social media and surfing are just today’s equivalent of gabbing for hours on the phone or hanging around in malls. So, no surprise, the same successful high tech parents who wouldn’t let their kids be phone junkies or mall rats don’t let them waste years on social media and surfing. As I noted in my earlier piece on this theme, the fact that the ad agencies for their tech companies make that kind of behaviour sound “cool” or “in” or “now” does not transform it into a smart choice or bright future for teens.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...