Are children showing a decreased ability to stay on task generally, now than they did in the past? There are very limited statistics available to prove this unequivocally. There is so much to sift through, even before any assumptions can be made. Focus during a task is dependent upon several factors; the kind of task- its complexity vis-à-vis the child’s maturity, how hungry or tired the child is while processing the task, the many distractions around, the time of the day it is being processed, the use of media, and more.
We can agree by and large that the future belongs to a technologically tailored and wired world. Insofar as attention spans in relation to exposure to digital media are concerned, studies do reveal that engagement beyond controlled levels not only does negatively affect attention spans in children, it also is one of the causes for childhood anxiety, aggressive behaviours, and several other social problems.
However, the acceleration of technology is inevitable and needs to be met with an equally aggressive growth in cognitive ability, to be able to process related tasks. And that is very much what seems to be happening. So, while the generation of yesterday had to ‘learn’ how to operate an electronic device, the children of today clearly do not. They are just capable of functioning, by default.
In my layman, non-medical understanding this ‘upgrading of mental capacities’ simply translates into what I believe is the ‘expanding brain’.
Quick cognitive processing, triggered by stimulus that the child is exposed to as part of his or her daily life, helps commit to complex functions casually, and matter-of-factly. The complexities of the brain and how it operates is a topic of intrigue. Somewhere brain cells seem to magically multiply to meet the challenges of the changing environment.
My own observations of the expanding brain interestingly seem to get endorsed in an article of research called the Cultural Brain Hypothesis (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles). This theory it says “relies on the idea that brains expand to store and manage more information. Brains expand in response to the availability of information and calories.”
Increased mental capacities, ask for channeling of those capacities. This involves making better choices. Learning is dependent upon experiences and those experiences, in my opinion, must be diverse. Balance is the key.
What then should be the quality of information made available to children?
While technology is willy-nilly part of our lives, something needs to shift the pendulum the other way, so that there is engagement away from the screen as well. What is additionally available for cognitive development is resources like the natural environment, the human connection, the ingenious of the creative mind, the dexterity of a pair of hands, the ability to successfully explore and innovate; all of which undeniably can acquire finesse with the use of technology, but do not have to be driven by it.
There is truly a need to draw children into the wondrous world of print books, of outdoor/indoor games, of role play, of travelling, of storytelling, of working with their hands to create, to engage with nature, of research through observation, and forming hypothesis.
The human brain has the potential for great learning and all learning does not require an artificial processor.