Thoughts on the overly-distracted world of Menlo Park children

by Mike Lanza on May 12, 2013

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At home, children are bombarding themselves with digital media – eight hours a day, according to a prominent study. Most older kids do their homework while “multitasking” with Facebook or texting on a nearby screen and music blaring in their ear

“In terms of sheer quantity of time, I’m not sure that kids spend any more time on homework than we did,” says Janis Whitlock, Director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescence and Young Adults. “But they do feel more burned out and stressed, and that’s because their attention is more scattered.”

When they’re not consuming digital media, parents have their kids busy in lots of scheduled, adult-led activities.

Unfortunately, I’ve recently come to realize that school these days is no oasis from distraction, either. Kids don’t (usually) consume digital media at school, but they’re distracted there by the latest overdone educational fad, “collaboration” for every subject, from solving math problems to writing to reading.

My son Marco, a second grader, recently had difficulty completing a multi-day writing assignment at school. This made his teacher testy, and he got very anxious. In entire class sessions he would write nothing. He told me, “Kids keep coming up to my desk to talk. Once that starts, I get nothing done.”

When I asked his teacher to try to make writing time quiet time, she replied that she wanted to make writing an “interactive exercise,” so she encouraged milling around and talking. Talking about writing, I’ve come to understand, is emphasized in the new Common Core Writing Standards.

Despite his teacher’s rejection of quiet time up to that point, she experimented by making kids sit and be quiet the next day during writing time. The result? Marco wrote more than he ever had in a class, and he claims to me that many other kids were unusually productive as well.

“The human brain just isn’t designed for the kind of stimulation kids today regularly encounter,” notes Whitlock. “So, they’re arriving at college less-equipped to deal with basic human stuff.”

Whitlock contends that this over-stimulation is responsible for huge increases in emotional problems in youth. One prominent study finds a five-fold increase in emotional disorders in youth over the past few decades.

In addition, by many measures (e.g. see SAT and NAEP test trends), kids in high school aren’t achieving any better academically than they were decades ago.
In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that today’s world is too loud and social for introverts, who need quiet time to reflect and thrive.

Actually, I’d say that today’s world is so distracting for children that even the extroverts among them are distracted.

Kids need quiet time, totally devoid of distractions, for play and for thinking, to be creative, and just to have fun. We need to shut off the screens and the chatter for them, at least for parts of their day.

What do you think?

Menlo Park resident Mike Lanza is the author of Playborhood

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