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Holinger: Preteens, teenagers dealing with digital addictions

Published: Friday, May 13, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 13, 2011 1:25 p.m. CDT

When it comes to digital technology, I’m all over it. I can answer a cellphone, and my once-a-month text to my kids at college reaches them every other time.

I also multitask, sipping decaf between sentences.

Today’s preteens and teenagers face more severe challenges. The thesis of Daniel Sieberg’s new book, “The Digital Diet,” can be divined by its subtitle: “The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Technology Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life.”

Can young people “Just Say ‘No’ ” to the constant barrage of Facebook, iTunes and YouTube temptations? At Northern Illinois University in February, one conference presenter asked us teachers how many had trouble policing cellphones in class. Virtually all hands shot up.

A Newsweek cover story March 7 defined the problem as “information overload,” with one study concluding, “with too much information, people’s decisions make less and less sense.” The more sources informing a decision, the less reliance on lengthy reflection to make the best decision.

Jaron Lanier’s famous New York Times essay, “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” laments the declining role of teacher creativity. Standardized tests dictate lesson plans, co-opting a teacher’s forte or passion.

Lanier warns that “we are tempted by the demons of commercial and professional ambition to pretend to know more than we do. This hypnotic idea of omniscience could kill the magic of teaching because of the intimacy with which we let computers guide our brains.”

Alan McCloud, retired Batavia High School technology director, asserted in the Aug. 27, 2010, Kane County Chronicle that the research does not support the idea that technology automatically improves instruction.

In the same article, District 101’s Chief Information Officer Anton Inglese envisioned the future teacher as a “coach that supports student learning.”

“Instead of a teacher teaching math or history, technology will disseminate that information in [the student’s] own learning style,” Inglese said in the article.

PBS’s Frontline of Feb. 8 presented research suggesting that college-age multitaskers fail at tasks they believe they’re mastering. A related segment demonstrated the deleterious effects (lower test scores) of distractions imposed by laptops and cellphones in classrooms. A middle school assistant principal faced with students distracted by music, social networks and tempting web sites concluded, “all this bifurcates the brain, keeps it from pursuing one linear thought.”

Emory University professor Mark Baroline only assigns novels under 200 pages.

“Kids aren’t as academically capable as before digital distractions,” he lamented in the Frontline program, citing a National Education Association study revealing younger students’ good reading and writing skills deteriorating as they grow older.

In fact, a New Jersey high school senior Frontline interviewed confessed, “I never read books. Nowadays, people … get summaries like Spark Notes. I’ve never read Romeo and Juliet until yesterday when I read it in five minutes.”

Hmm. This guy believes he “read” the play because he popped a plot summary pill. He probably “saw” the Grand Canyon by looking at a postcard.

This all makes me wonder whether D-303’s Richmond third-to-fifth graders receiving iPads next year are going to benefit from the technology. Who knows? But surely overachievers will only need part of recess to finish “War and Peace” and tell teacher who won.

• Rick Holinger can be contacted at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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