I am a student, barely two decades old, yet being a student when I was born had a remarkably different meaning than it does now. In the 1990s, the Internet was only emerging, email was for businessmen, a select few students had cell phones (most of which only made calls), computers were in labs only, and floppy disks were the means of data storage. Now there is Wi-Fi almost everywhere, no student goes to college without a laptop, hardly anyone even bothers to buy CDs anymore, and I am behind the times because I bought my first smartphone when I was 20. Our increasingly Internet-driven state of living is a contentious issue that deserves attention and careful examination. But in light of the points brought up in Frontline documentary “Digital Nation,” will the plugged-in life even give way to such focused thought or allow people to communicate with each other effectively enough to accomplish anything?
Frontline producer Rachel Dretzin began the program by telling how her eyes were opened one night while she was cooking dinner. Her family was all in the next room, but each person was on a laptop or an iPhone, hardly noticing that the others were there. Others shared Dretzin’s concerns–correspondent Douglas Rushkoff followed the story of Asia’s digital revolution, particularly focusing on the South Korean gaming craze. He interviewed teenagers in an Internet café as well as a boy who was sent to Internet Rescue School for a two-week camp to reduce his Internet use. The young boy, Chung Young-Il, had fallen to the bottom of his class within one year as his Internet use increased. He stared past the camera and walked like a zombie, explaining how he played computer games for 7-8 hours per day and all night on weekends. His mother said, “That inability to communicate with me, his own mother, makes me so sad.”
Another large portion of the film was spent on the impact of Internet use on thought, focus, and the brain, beginning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The entire student body was introduced as “some of the smartest and most wired students in the world,” screens were visible everywhere, and students commented on how common it was to be carrying on several conversations or completing several tasks at once. Professor Sherry Turkle said it is necessary to use different teaching strategies now to take precedence over the Internet in students’ minds: “…They need to be stimulated in ways they didn’t need to be stimulated before.” It is exceedingly ironic but strangely undeniable that, in order to take in lecture material, students need to be distracted from none other than the distraction itself.
The most scientific portion of the documentary was a study conducted by Stanford professor Clifford Nass on the brain images of multi-taskers. Nass selected a group of chronic, highly intense multi-taskers. Examples included simulation of talking on the phone while driving and a digital quiz on numbers and letters in a minefield of distraction. All of the Stanford students (and the MIT students, for that matter) were convinced that they were highly productive multi-taskers, that the research did not apply to them. Yet the test results showed significantly impaired work and work speed under the condition of constantly and rapidly switching tasks.
Of course, there came an example in the film of a positive change related to the Internet, and it came in the form of a middle school in the South Bronx. Principal Jason Levy took over the school in 2004, when its students’ success was in grave disrepair, and turned CIS 339 into a 1-to-1 MacBook school at the expense of NYC’s Department of Education. Test scores improved drastically, fights and gang activity decreased, and the school received better and better NYC progress reports. On Jason Levy’s blog, I found this quote in a post from 2009: “At 339, we don’t see laptops as toys, or even as tools. We see them as megaphones to give students and teachers global voices. The modern Internet isn’t an idea, or a place. It is a language that we need to speak at all corners of our school systems and in each one of our classrooms. It is a language that has rapidly improved our school, and can help transform struggling schools everywhere.”
But I have a problem with that. You see, the Internet is not the only language out there. How can you interact fully with a teacher with a laptop screen as a medium? How can a computer teach you to communicate face-to-face with your future employer? How can you experience all of life if half of it has been lived online? And nearest to my heart, how can you feel the pleasure of concentration, of making slow but memorable progress inside your mind, if your attention is constantly being demanded by multiple screens and online programs?
I had ADHD long before the Internet even entered my life. I hogged the bathroom by reading books, wasted hours of school time by playing scenarios in my head, failed timed math tests, and spent half my childhood summers playing around an old well outside as the middle child of the imaginary pioneer Lennox family. It took me around 14 years to become a straight-A student and accomplish significant things outside my own mind. But then, in high school, the Internet came. And as a student on another Frontline documentary, “Growing Up Online,” put it, “The Internet is like a currency; if you don’t use it, you’re at a loss.” When I entered college and my Internet use doubled, my concentration completely slipped again.
Is the Internet entirely to blame for this? I don’t know for certain, but my experience and the evidence presented on Frontline and other sources confirms a definite connection. The Internet replaces one distraction with five others. The Internet replaces living relationships with virtual ones. The Internet helps kids make the grade online, not in their minds. For a concluding thought, would you rather your brain be located inside your head or in a screen?