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The Three Biggest Myths About Distracted Youth

The Three Biggest Myths About Distracted Youth

Reblogged from The Wall Street Journal, October 11, at

Photo by Everett


by Cathy Davidson

Whenever I lecture on the science of attention, I hear the same litany of fears from parents and grandparents worried about the distracted state of those born after 1990.  Pundits have made an industry of telling us how the Internet has made youth distracted, how their switched-on life is destroying their brain.

Nonsense. There is no convincing experimental evidence that the act of texting or surfing the Internet hurts young people, not on a neurological level or even a behavioral one.  But rather than trot out the research using ECGs or measuring REMs to refute these hyperbolic claims, we can use simple, common sense observation to dispel the three most common myths about the brains of youth today.

Myth #1:  Young People Don’t/Can’t Remember Anything Anymore.

The fearful logic is that because kids use Google and speed dial to remember basic facts and phone numbers, they have lost the ability to remember anything.

That conclusion doesn’t follow.  Students today don’t bother to memorize what they can easily find online but that’s what tools are for and always have been. In the pre-Internet era of the Yellow Pages (remember those?), adults let our “fingers do the walking.”  Tools supplement our skills and even allow us to replace one kind of mental effort with another.

Here is a common-sense refutation of this basic myth.  At Duke University, where I teach, the very same students who don’t bother to remember the phone numbers they speed dial can tell you any and every basketball stat from any Duke game played this century—and probably from the previous one too. If there is a social currency in remembering something, people (even young people) continue to remember it.   The issues here are interest, ease, and utility—not compromised neuronal capacity.

Myth #2:  Young People Can’t Read Anything Long.

The fear here is that, because kids text, because they jump impatiently from screen to screen, they have destroyed their ability to concentrate on one long, complex narrative such as a novel. It is true that young people today may have different reading preferences than older people but it is just false to think youth have lost the ability to read longer work.

Here’s the common sense refutation: Harry Potter. The single bestselling book series of all time, the long Harry Potter novels with their abundance of characters in complicated plot situations have sold about 450 million copies in 67 languages–and it wasn’t adults standing on line at midnight to buy the newest one. The Scholastic Association estimates that fifteen-year-olds today read more books a year (outside of school) than their parents do—and more books per year than their parents did when they were 15. In fact, Young Adult (YA) literature is saving trade publishing. Publishers can’t keep up with the demand of 14-21 year-olds for titles in a category that barely existed before the invention of the Internet.

Myth #3:  Young People’s Multitasking Causes Accidents.

The biggest fear is that young people are so obsessed with texting that they will get into terrible car accidents.

Here’s the common sense refutation.  The insurance adjusters I interviewed for “Now You See It” all agreed that texting while driving is stupid and does indeed contribute to accidents.  Both are attention soakers. Don’t let your teen do both at once. But if you really want to make sure your sixteen-year-old is safe behind the wheel, take out the passenger seats in his car. The single greatest predictor of traffic fatalities among young people (besides substance abuse) is the presence of other young people.

Insurance adjusters have a word of caution for adults too:  Physical and emotional maladies are far more distracting than technology. No one should get into a car who is worried about a big test, who has just received a pink slip or a dear John, who has exited from a messy and unsatisfying divorce court hearing, or who has received a frightening health diagnosis. And be careful if you have a headache or stomachache. Heartburn and heartache contribute to more accidents than do cellphones.

Those pundits who frighten us over the fate of humanity and warn us that the Internet ruins our brain seem to have forgotten that we are humans, that we have will, and that we have the ability to use the tools at our disposal wisely or badly. It’s a choice. Once we can get past the fears that blind us to our own common sense, we can begin to think sensibly about this tool called the Internet. We can begin to create the particular, individual, or group habits and practices that work best for us.  Once we dispel the myths, we can master our tools rather than fearfully allowing the myth of their power to master us.

Cathy N. Davidson, John Hope Franklin Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, is the author of “Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” (Viking).


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