Discussion of “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction”

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6 Comments to “Discussion of “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction””

  1. I find a sick pleasure in reading how one student “blames multitasking” for slipping grades and another “blames the Internet” for lack of focus. Dodging schoolwork and evading blame existed long before these kids, though this probably didn’t cross their minds when the NY Times showed up for an interview.

    Watch a corny 80s high school movie. Or a 70s movie of the same genre. Or 60s. Or, if you can pay attention long enough, read some Mark Twain. Younger generations have always looked for a distraction because real life often sucks. But this does not mean constant escapism is okay. They, as we, cannot slip into the trivialities of distraction, whether it is sending fifty “wut r u up 2 lol” “nm lol” texts a day, or riding a raft down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave. What is more, we cannot blame mobile devices or computers, rafts or rivers for distracting us. Unless you have a computer virus (or it is hurricane season, but the river metaphor ends here) the digital world will not force itself on you. You seek it out.

    I understand how these kids in the article can confuse the issue, though. Their friends are having seven conversations at once because their friends’ friends are having seven conversations at once because those friends are also having seven conversations at once. Peer pressure hits hard. If one person breaks the delicate social loop regarding how “WE GOT SOOOOOOOOO DRUNK LAST NIGHT ON MY DAD’S SCOTCH ;)” the illusion unravels and someone might remember their essay due tomorrow.

    Peers are only a part of the problem, and a considerably smaller part than the responsibility of parents. I felt some resentment for Vishal and his peers after reading this:

    “The $2,000 computer Vishal is using is state of the art and only a week old. It represents a concession by his parents. They allowed him to buy it, despite their continuing concerns about his technology habits, because they wanted to support his filmmaking dream.”

    Well, color me pissed off. The only way you could spend 2000 dollars on a computer within the last four months (assuming the interview in the article isn’t too much older than Nov. 2010) is if he grossly overspent on a machine that is impossible to future-proof or he bought a Mac–but I repeat myself. To make an analogy for a broader audience, it’s like buying a car at sticker price or buying an expensive car solely because that make of car is expensive. He shows an ignorance of value, both for the dollar and the tools of his chosen field, but that is a personal gripe. The worst of the above quote is how the parents made a concession against their better judgment. Just like the Frontline documentary and almost every documentary I’ve seen on this topic, the parents are flimsy, ill-informed pacifists who cave in to future tech pressures from their children.

    Where is self-control in all of this?

    Not to leave that question rhetorical, I googled for self-control. I found this:


    God damn it.

  2. I found Matt Richtel’s article “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” to be generally uninformative and somewhat disconcerting, but probably not in the way Richtel intended it to be. Richtel uses the word “distraction” rather liberally, applying it to students who use the most popular forms of digital media (cell phones, video games, and the Internet). He focuses primarily on the life of Vishal, a perhaps budding filmmaker whose poor grades and penchant for sitting on Facebook and watching YouTube videos has merited him—at least in the opinion of Mr. Richtel—the label of being a “distracted” student. Vishal cannot focus on his schoolwork because he would rather surf the internet or work on film projects. As Vishal himself claims, he prefers “the immediate gratification” (Richter, 1) the internet provides over that of reading a book or doing his homework. The picture that Richtel proceeds to create of Vishal is an interesting one: Vishal appears to be an intelligent, even gifted student, but who against the onslaught of those familiar distractors such as YouTube and Facebook cannot remove himself from his computer screen long enough to get any schoolwork done. Richtel chalks up the problem to be one of focus, citing research that proposes tech-savvy children might become “less able to sustain attention” (1).

    The irony? Richtel later quotes Vishal’s Facebook status updates to emphasize the fact that he’s not doing homework, which in turn reveals just how focused Vishal can be. “8+ hours of shooting, 8+ hours of editing. All for just a three-minute scene” (6). I would argue that 16+ hours of amateur film production requires an incredible degree of attention, whether or not it involves sustained attention or a more “distracted” kind that allows for juggling multiple tasks. (I should note here that I remain woefully ignorant of attention patterns the brain exhibits when involved in filmmaking, but I would venture to guess that the patterns are different from those that might appear when one is, say, watching a video of cats in hats on YouTube).

    The problem, then, does not seem to be a general inability to focus. Perhaps Vishal lacks self-discipline (which his parents would seem to encourage, exemplified by the ridiculously-priced $2000 computer they bought for Vishal), and perhaps it is a lack of self-discipline in other students that explains dropping grades in English classrooms and fewer students enrolling in Advanced Placement courses. In fact, there are a number of factors that could explain these events. The knee-jerk reaction that technology is to blame for the academic shortcomings of Vishal and has classmates seems unproductive. Yes, the Internet can provide a wayward procrastinator with hours of unproductive fun and misinformation, but can’t other outlets do the same?

    Distraction isn’t a new phenomenon. To Richtel’s credit, he mentions Vishal’s friend Sean, who states that “video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else” (3). Sure, due to the instant feedback of digital media we can take multitasking to new extremes. But kids not doing their homework because they’ve been “distracted” by anything—whether it was burgeoning technology at the time, like TV, or running around outside and playing stickball, or maybe even reading books—has probably been around ever since there’s been homework to ignore.

    I agree with Cathy Davidson; in her response to Richtel’s article, she argues that we need to be more careful about our terminology, and more rigorous in our analysis of the relationship between people and technology. Protracted anecdotes peppered with a bit of neuroscience is more entertaining than informative, and if we’re going to get anywhere we should adopt a more objective approach than “technology is rotting our brains!”

    This next paragraph is perhaps unrelated to most of my response, but I found Richtel’s analysis of media usage hilarious. While Richtel essentially lumps all of the digital media he describes into one group (perhaps labeled “new stuff that’s bad”), he does attempt to distinguish between the devices on some level. Yet these distinctions do nothing more than associate certain forms of digital media with certain “social types” (Richter, 3): “heavy texters” are, like Allison Miller who texts at a “blistering pace,” the most social people; procrastinators browse the web and watch YouTube; and (my favorite), “less social” students might “escape into games.” These types receive the monikers “texter and gamer, Facebook addict and YouTube potato.”

    So, what happens when you do all four (like me and probably thousands of other people)? I hope the answer similarly includes a reference to some delicious starchy plant parts.

  3. First let me start by saying I found it to be horribly ironic that while I was reading today’s article I did it on the bus using my iPhone. I think this article, like many of the articles we have looked at thus far this quarter, makes the misuse of technology into a far larger problem than it really is. Technology is a tool, but like any tool it can be misused by the person who wields it.

    The article, in my opinion, emphasized the gap between Vishal’s technological work and all other work too much. Of course a student is going to gravitate towards those subjects they find interesting. I very much doubt that his inability to pass Algebra II was due to the fact he was playing video games or surfing YouTube. While he may enjoy those activities that give him instant gratification, I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t. I’d be curious to learn how much time students spent reading non-school books or how much time they spent outside before video games were easily accessible.

    Are we really raising a “dumber generation”, or could it just be that this generation focuses their attentions other places? Many place an emphasis on school and education, yet many fail to realize that not everyone needs to have the same kind or length of eduction. In the article it stated that one teacher was concerned because not as many students take AP classes and that they have noticed a decline over the years. Yet this article fails to assert the possibility that other factors such as increased workload, harder exams, or social activities could be the cause. The athlete that can’t focus on school work because they are not on a field is not ridiculed like the student who is constantly “plugged in”. There is a niche in society for them just as there is a niche for everyone. The people who find stimulus in games may turn out to become the next top programmer at Apple, or develop the next great technological advancement. A joy for technology does not limit a person’s knowledge, a lack of self-discipline is what allows technology to overrule it.

  4. The first time I read through Richtel’s article and Davidson’s response I was caught up in the flow that our in class discussions had established and wrote off Richtel’s article as something much along the lines of the Dateline clips that we watched, overblown sensationalist writing that was trying to make me fear for the state of teenage minds everywhere. Somewhere in the middle of writing a response in that vein of thinking I went back and reread everything. Davidson, despite her prestigious background has more in common with Dateline’s overblown finger pointing than Richtel’s well thought out article.

    Yes, if you only pay attention to the story of Vishal and his friends/classmates as they text and video edit their way towards a duller future it’s going to seem like another rant about how the youth is spiraling out of control and are all destined for some kind of educational stunting. But that’s not the message Richtel’s trying to get you to notice, it just provides context for the questions he wants you to ask. Namely, what’s an effective way to deal with the digital age and the never ending march of progress. Providing research from UCSF, Harvard, UMass and others that points out that digital technology is changing the ways in which we think, interact with others and store information mentally gives us a few building blocks to start our own inquiries into the effect of the constant information overload we face on a daily basis.

  5. First off, before getting into a response to the article…I have to take a minute to admit that while reading this article I ended up on Facebook, my e-mail and looking up prices on a new cell-phone. In a way because the article was online…I was much more tempted to open up a new window and explore a different website every couple of minutes. This in turn made what could have taken me about 15 minutes to read almost 45.
    The point that seemed to grab me the most from Richtel’s article was the balance that older and newer generations are trying to find between the good and bad of all the technological advances being made. Richtel makes points about the school principle who is trying to grow with the changes…by using ipads in classroom settings and pushing the time that school started forward an hour. I feel that this guy has the right idea…instead of wasting time complaining about the way us newer generational kids go about doing things and how distracted we are by everything around us…why not use that time to think of ways to accommodate the change.
    I also feel that although Richtel doesn’t specifically point out the role of parents in all of this, in the story of Vishal he proves a couple of things about the role they played in their sons “demise” in school unintentionally. Where is parental authority anymore in this world…if they are THAT concerned about their child failing out of high school…pull the plug on his computer…don’t agree to let him buy a brand new one. It is obvious that Vishal was successful in school at one point, but the distraction of the way cooler internet…video games…and editing software are much more amusing and entertaining then Algebra 2. What kid wouldn’t be pulled into the many facets of the media world that are in constant competition with each other to see who can entertain the best. I feel that Vishal’s parents seemed like submissive, non-authoritative figures in his life…they have the power to eliminate some of the distraction…yet ultimately choose not to. Overall I don’t feel that after reading Richtel’s article I am completely compelled by his argument…all in all I found in weak in evidence and lacking any sort of persuasive quality. I want writers to stop talking about how distracted “we” are as a generation, and start talking about the changes that need to be made in order to accommodate these advances…because there is no going back now.

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