Digital Nation

Last night, I got into my pjs early, snuggled into bed and watched Frontline’s Digital Nation.  It’s a follow-up of sorts to their Growing Up Online, which I wrote about when it came out and got some response from at least one teacher featured in the show.

Growing Up Online came out 2 years ago.  I was in a different place then.  We all were.  There are many aspects of the Internet I’m hugely enthusiastic about, but I’m starting to have reservations about things like multi-tasking and the amount of time we spend online.  I could sympathize with Rachel Dretzin, who says at the beginning, that she felt uneasy when she realized that while her whole family was in the same room together, each person was on a screen, separately doing their own thing.  That describes our house on most days, and some days, it feels like coziness and togetherness, and others it feels like we’re all living separate lives.  In my former job (and sometimes in my current work), I felt the need to be overly enthusiastic, just to get past the naysayers, whom I still think are ignoring some of the great things about the online world.  Now, I’m feeling more skeptical.  I’m more careful and thoughtful about the amount of time I spend online and what I’m doing there, and I use that same critical eye when I’m working with people to use technology effectively.

I could not have taught my class without the Internet.  And not just because the Internet is a tool teachers can use effectively in their teaching, but because I used it extensively to actually build the class.  I was able to find similar classes online, tap into my Twitter network to ask for suggestions for things, search Google, Diigo, and Delicious for appropriate tools and material.  If I’d been teaching it pre-Internet, I’d have a boring textbook and the class would be much less information packed and much less vibrant than it currently is.  That would be a loss.  But the Internet also enables my students to be on Facebook and email while I’m teaching, only loosely paying attention sometimes.  I’m torn about “disallowing” that.  It’s kind of impossible in a computer lab.  Mostly I try to engage them, ask them questions.

There was some discussion of that in the show, of needing to reach students where they are, but also of students believing that they’re successful, not just in spite of their multi-tasking, but because of it.  Some early research suggests that they’re completely wrong.  Part of my exhaustion this week, has been because I’ve actually mostly been focused on one thing at a time, spending an hour or two doing one thing, then shifting to something else.  I think I’m out of practice.

There was also a fair amount done with video games.  And the show displayed both the good and bad things about video games.  They showed a kid that was “addicted” to gaming, and also groups of friends who were getting together in real life, but who’d known each other for years via World of Warcraft (more on that in the WoW Wednesday post).  I’m on the fence about this one.  As I said in an earlier post about this topic, my son and I especially are online playing games quite a bit.  I would say that he can play up to 3 or 4 hours a day.  We’re not very consistent about our limits, though when grades drop, we get pretty strict.  Part of me feels anxious about this.  On the one hand, I know that the complexity of the game makes it hard just to spend an hour playing.  On the other hand, I think Geeky Boy should expand his horizons.  Unlike some of the kids in the show, though, he’s still an avid reader and plays sports, but doesn’t do that many other things.  Sometimes, I think it’s easier for us to just sit in front of the computer rather than find something else to do.  And that worries me.

Because of the Internet, though, I think I read more than I did before.  I’m probably reading fewer books, but I’m reading more articles from a wider variety of sources than I did before.  I used to work my way through the Chronicle, and over the years, have subscribed to a few mainstream news magazines, but I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, mostly because I found most of it didn’t interest me.  Now, I read the Inquirer, the New York Times, and many others, as articles of interest find their way to me through various means.  I listen to podcasts from NPR, the Economist, and other sources while I work out, expanding what I listen to.  I watch much less tv, focusing on what I want to watch, sometimes downloading those things from the Internet.  That seems to me a good thing.

In the end, I think the show raised some really interesting points.  And I’ve been thinking about those points for a while.  Are we too disconnected from each other despite our constant connection?  Are we losing interest in a variety of things because we would prefer to be online?  Or can we create connection and create new interests through online worlds?  How much time online is too much time?  Does it depend on what you’re doing?  I honestly don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  I’m grateful for the Internet.  I can honestly say it has mostly changed my life in positive ways.  But I can also say that it has made me feel less than positive, about what I’m doing online, about the time I spend there, or because of interactions I’ve had there.  Maybe, it’s just like real life, which isn’t always positive either.

6 Replies to “Digital Nation”

  1. What seems like a lot more incivility, brusqueness, and lack of modulation in online communications troubles me. Certainly anonymity and ease of typing enable impulsiveness, but maybe if we hung out with more diverse groups in social real time, we would “hear” the same things. I worry that people aren’t spending enough time being fully in real-time environments, whether indoors or outdoors, and I’m inclined to make a distinction between reading a print book and being online in the sense that you are often more aware of your surroundings and senses, but I’m not sure. The slow and imperfect results of making actual paper dolls or folding paper snowflakes are so much more satisfying to me than “making” them online, whereas a tween I know prefers the polished and instantly gratifying results. There’s a difference, but why does it matter? (I mean, I know why, but then again, I don’t…)

  2. I agree with you, Jan. It’s why I’m a bit uneasy with my family’s time spent online. While I think cutting ourselves off from the online completely is not good, I feel like balance is important, and that that may be missing not just from my own life, but everyone’s.

  3. When I was in high school and college, I read Marshall McLuhan intently, but I now realize how superficially I understood him, possibly because I myself had experienced very little in the way of technological change — basically more television programming from the the 50s to the 70s. I also used to read and think about Piaget a lot. I may be so far out of the loop at this point that it’s pointless to comment, but if interaction with the environment is critical to very early childhood cognitive development, just as abstraction is later, might it still not be essential for adult cognitive, psychological and emotional integration? This is more than just the importance of physical exercise.

  4. I have come full circle with how I feel about the internet, particularly for my kids. My kids at first had zero computer time (and only 2 hours of TV on weekends). Then a few months ago, we let my 8-year old have an hour of computer time on the weekend. Then the cold weather in December increased that time on the weekend. Now the first thing she wants to do on a weekend is be on the computer, and if we say “no” she is “bored” and whiny about not getting to use it.

    Before we let her use a computer regularly, we never heard her say “bored.” Both older kids found plenty to do outside, inside, wherever. Now that they know it’s an option, their curiosity and creativity has taken a nose dive. So I’m back to that strict 1-hour of time on the weekends, and only if they’ve played outside first. (And usually when they play outside, they never come back in to use it.) At their ages, 8 and 5, I see the computer/TV only as a detriment.

    And I’m realizing more and more that the internet isn’t as great for me, either. I used to think that the Internet allowed me to read information that I otherwise never would have read. But now, I realize, that the quality of the content has changed drastically — and that I’m getting a lot of bad/wrong info, mixed in with the really good stuff. I think the Atlantic had a piece last month about how investigative journalism doesn’t even exist any more — it’s just a race to stick something on a web page with little or no substance.

    So I’m going back to only using the computer in front of my kids when I’m actually “writing.” All the surfing, Facebook, blog-reading takes place either while they’re at school or after they’re in bed. And I’ve put a new restriction on myself, which I hope I can follow through with — no internet unless I’ve spent time outside first.

  5. I’m much better about restrictions in the summer, when I really do feel like we can be outside, read books, build things, do something besides play on the computer. In the winter during the school year, the kids use it much as I do, as a way to wind down after a long day. I feel like we are all on the computer too much, but I’m not entirely sure what to do about it. I’m still thinking through how to manage my time and my kids’ time.

  6. Here’s another interesting new digital tool for kids and parents. A total sign of the times! It’s an iPhone app that decodes and translates slang, abbreviations, and emoticons for those of us who need a glossary of modern language (I was shocked about how much I wasn’t understanding!). You can get a better idea about it at Enjoy!


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