Plugged in, zoned out

As teens' reliance on technology soars, parents and teachers scramble to limit usage

June 08, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

When River Hill High School 10th-grader Kelsey Balimtas sits down to do her homework, her cell phone and computer are always right in front of her. She would like to stay completely focused on the textbook, but honestly, she says, she just can't.

Her cell phone calls to her with an irresistible buzz she can't ignore. She bounces from homework to text message to Facebook and back to homework. "I think the quality of my homework is decreased," she admitted.

And so do college professors and high school teachers, who say this constantly plugged-in generation is less able to focus on subjects that take deep concentration. They see students who are smart but can't write long papers very well; students who have more trouble paying attention in longer class periods and students who are disorganized. Their observations are supported by more than just anecdotes from the classroom; brain research shows that it is difficult to do many things at the same time.

"They are constantly jumping from one thing to another. They can't sit still long enough," said Ilona McGuiness, dean of first-year students and academic services at Loyola College. "You can't think through problems. You can't process. You can't develop the deep thinking skills."

Such is the life of the normal high school and college student these days, a generation that doesn't remember when the "house phone" was simply the only phone or when research was done at the library.

They are always plugged in to some form of technology: an iPod, a computer, a cell phone or a BlackBerry - and sometimes all of them at once.

In that way, Balimtas is a normal high school student except that she is mature enough to realize that she may not be as efficient when she is plugged into all her devices at once. That hasn't changed her behavior or that of her friends, who admit to having a love affair with their gadgets.

"If my phone breaks for a couple of days, I begin to feel weird," said Theresa Russell, a ninth-grader at the Howard County school.

"My girlfriend goes to this school, and we text 50 times a day," said Matthew Moore, a 10th-grader who stopped momentarily during an interview to check his phone and see who had just sent him a text message. Moore and other students say they are so used to sending messages on their phones that they prefer it to speaking to friends on the phone because it takes less time.

They say there aren't many minutes in a day when they stay unplugged from their social network; although Balimtas said her mother has begun intervening by putting her daughter's phone on "house arrest."

Recent brain research conducted by Marcel Just at Carnegie Mellon University showed that multitasking may be more difficult than we think.

The Carnegie Mellon study used brain imaging to show that when people talked on a cell phone the brain activity that is connected to driving a car diminishes by nearly 40 percent, making it more likely those drivers will not perform as well on the road. The study had volunteers simulate driving while inside an MRI brain scanner. They were then asked questions they had to respond to.

Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, said the research indicates that it is difficult for the human brain to operate at maximum effectiveness while doing several tasks. The distracting task, he said, draws away power, creating something like a brown-out in the brain.

"If you are solving a hard physics problem, maybe that is not the time to listen to your iPod," Just said.

Studies have indicated, he said, that the brain processes language automatically. So when a person hears someone talking, he or she can't shut it out.

The most motivated students instinctively figure out they can't do that physics problem while listening to hard rock and simply take out their ear buds, he said.

But changing the behavior may not be instinctive. Loyola's McGuiness said students who come to her with academic problems often have to be told, "Hey, look what is happening here."

"We tell them they need to put themselves in an environment where they will not be interrupted," she said. The challenge for young people today, she maintains, is learning to limit their use of technology.

"You have to teach them to manage these things," she said.

McGuiness said she began seeing a change in students about five years ago. She and other teachers say the students seem to become fidgety when they are out of communication with their friends. When she walks down the halls today, she said, she sees students rush out of class and immediately flip open their phones. "They are in the habit of doing things in short bursts," she said.

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, a Johns Hopkins University lecturer who wrote an article for the Johns Hopkins Magazine on the subject of multitasking, said she saw the problem surface about two years ago, particularly in her larger classes of 20 and 30 students who were trying to use technology secretly.

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