The ongoing great digital experiment on the brain development of children

Recently, two organizations surveyed teachers to learn their opinions of how digital technologies and media are effecting students, both academically and socially. The results were fascinating and if you have the time, take a look at the reports, which are listed below. The teachers in these surveys observe both positive and negative effects on children and youth, but in both cases, teachers cite a decline in students’ ability to focus on a task and work hard at acquiring knowledge. It’s another slice of data about the massive and involuntary experiment on human brain development that we are conducting on ourselves in this Wild West of digital media.

The reports:
Children Teens and Entertainment Media: the View from the Classroom
Common Sense Media
Fall 2012

How Teens Do Research in the Digital World
Pew Internet and American Life Project,
A Project of the Pew Research Center
November 2012

Most of the teachers surveyed for the Pew report say the internet and digital search tools have had a mostly positive impact academically. The internet, they say, gives students access to a wider range of resources, and makes students more self-sufficient researchers. But they also say that internet search engines have “conditioned” students to expect to find information quickly and easily:

“…some teachers report that for their students ‘doing research’ has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.”

Overall, the vast majority of these teachers say a top priority in today’s classrooms should be teaching students “how to judge the quality of online information,” which is a part of media literacy.

The Common Sense Media report surveyed a broader range of teachers – those teaching in K to12 classrooms – and focused on entertainment media’s effect on students. Teachers in this survey were more likely to say that the content and quantity of entertainment media hurts, rather than helps, with academic skills.

The biggest problem cited is, again, reduction of attention span, followed by a decline in writing skills and the neglect of homework due to the quantity of media use.

A quote from a teacher in the CSM report:  “The use of media has made students think in short bites … They cannot sustain their thinking or attention for longer than 10 minutes.”

Teachers also said that entertainment media has had a negative impact on students’ ability to communicate face to face and on their critical thinking.

Many teachers, though, agreed with the Pew finding that students’ media use improved their ability to find information quickly and efficiently, and some see a benefit to creativity.

Social development:

The CSM study found that many teachers think entertainment media is having a negative effect on social development, especially on sexualization.

Other areas of concern:

  • ideas about relationships between boys and girls,
  • attitudes toward adults such as parents and teachers,
  • a tendency to engage in anti-social behaviors like being mean,
  • body image,
  • aggressive behavior.

Some teachers did see a positive effect on pro-social behaviors and some said that students’ use of media has “broadened their horizons by exposing them to diverse viewpoints and experiences.”

See also the New York Times story


  1. I read both the research pieces in full and thought I’d add a third thought…the widening of access/opportunity for education on a global scale:

    I like the line, ‘education gets disrupted gradually’ —and this piece on the future of learning in a networked society definitely points to deeper analysis/critical thinking skills over rote google-able factoids which holds promise too:

    The opportunity to ditch the rote/memorization ‘findable knowledge’ in favor of deeper thinking and the quest for functional knowledge is what excites me…putting the ‘whys and hmns’ back in learning/discovery vs the churn and burn ‘need to know it to pass’ antiquated mindset…THAT’s the opportunity that intrigues me.

    I definitely see behavioral artifacts/empirical evidence up the wazoo in terms of the attention span/multi-tasking issues though…so yep, lots to think on as we hold up the multi-faceted prism to the light and watch the shadows dance. (All the more reason to advocate for responsibility in what we’re putting out there content + product wise…w/pervasive media intake/absorption both direct and peripheral)

    p.s. Love the new look of the blog, Erin–Glad to see bright spotlights shining on how marketing/media is shaping youth in fresh/diff ways…Ancora Imparo!

  2. Thanks Amy, glad you like it!

    So much to talk about in these studies. I agree that the internet provides great opportunities for research, collaboration, access, education for students. Of course it does -it’s provided all that for me!

    I’m not convinced that internet, video games and media in general is the primary cause of any attention span problems, though. Especially not when my own 13yo can focus apparently for hours at a time on building up a world in MInecraft. I think there might be specific media uses that contribute to that effect (television?), in combination with other changes going on – perhaps we should place some blame on the rote learning/teach to the test style of education that we are unfortunately seeing in the US.

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