Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Internet is rewiring youngsters' brains - what do we do?

Students are losing the ability to study properly because constant internet use is "rewiring" their brains, researchers have claimed.

New research by Prof David Nicholas, of UCL , (carried out for the final episode of the BBC2 series The Virtual Revolution, to be broadcast on February 20) seems to confirm the notion that we have evolved into competent "information-grabbers". Young people in particular, he says, seem to "skip over a virtual landscape", hopping from website to website to find facts: "Nobody seemed to be staying anywhere for very long." He believes the Internet encourages users to dart from page to page, rather than concentrating on one source such as a book.

Described as "associative" thinking, researchers believe it is reducing youngsters' capacity to read and write at length because their minds are being remoulded to function differently.

This argument is taken up by Baroness Greenfield, the director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind at the University of Oxford, who commenting on Professor Nicholas' findings said that it

"certainly matches my own hypothesis that young people may be at risk of losing the ability to gain real understanding. It's a clich̩ that information is not knowledge, but there is much truth in that idea. Understanding requires the ability to relate one subject to something else Рto place something in context. If, because of your development in childhood, you lack that contextual framework, then you can only take it at face value and move on. What you see is indeed what you get. You download information, but you cannot necessarily understand it."

This research is really no surprise. Baroness Greenfield rightly warns us about the dangers of computer games, especially on their impact on the developing brain, and it would be foolish if we ignore her concerns. I shall follow her "A Brain for Life" campaign with interest.

On another level, dangers or no dangers, the genie is out of the bottle on this one - to some extent there is no going back. Whilst we may modify our behaviour or that of our children in relation to computer games, I do not believe that there will ever be a willingness to do so in relation to information. We like ubiquitous access to "Total-Knowledge" at the tip of our fingers too much. The Internet is growing daily and our ability to access it increases daily. It is part of of our lives and will remain so until we die - best we get used to it.

Undoubtly schools do have an important role to play here. They need to ensure that young people learn not only to navigate their way safely through cyberspace, but also to understand and evaluate the quality of the information that they are receiving. But above all they need to prepare our young people for the world of 2020 and beyond, not the world of the twentieth century.

If you want an insight into what that means consider the following:


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