Digital gray matters

Tufts professor and researcher Maryanne Wolf says parents should limit the time their children spend online or hooked up to electronic devices. Tufts professor and researcher Maryanne Wolf says parents should limit the time their children spend online or hooked up to electronic devices. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
February 15, 2010

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Maryanne Wolf is worried about what MP3 players, e-mail, and video games are doing to our minds. Particularly young minds. Wolf, director of the Tufts University Center for Reading and Language Research, researches the impact of digital media on the brain. Though she says technology has brought some positive new skills, its instant gratification and emphasis on entertainment are also depriving us of our ability to think deeply. A survey that came out last month gave her even more cause for concern: Youths ages 8-18 consume more than 7 1/2 hours of media a day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s up more than an hour from five years ago. Wolf, also a professor of Child Development at Tufts, talked recently about the implications of this new survey.


Q. Why does it worry you that children spend so much of their time online or plugged in?

A. One of my biggest questions is the cumulative effect of this immersion and this particular collection of media that gives so much so quickly to a young and only developing brain.

Q. Are you saying that digital media may literally be changing the way children think?

A. A child is learning to be distracted. They aren’t learning in too many places to concentrate and think deeply for themselves. The volume of information, the immediacy of information . . . these are characteristics that can be good, but they can also lead to a less active, [less superficial] learning style.

Q. Is reading a book or newspaper online as good as reading in print for developing analytical skills?

A. This is a research question we don’t totally know. I can only answer that when I’m reading online, I am reading to grasp information quickly and move on.

Q. What is the antidote to all this media exposure?

A. We are all so immersed in this digital world that we can’t imagine the antidotes, but the antidotes are to turn the darn things off.

Q. Is there a way, acknowledging that digital media are here to stay, to retain the deep thinking fostered by book reading?

A. Part of the story is what do our children learn to do in their schools. Do they learn to think, do they learn to play? One of the biggest antidotes is going back ourselves with our children and having fun - without electricity allowed.

Q. Your son is now in college, but if he were still at home, would you restrict his access to digital media?

A. If I were a parent today, I would limit the time that my children were online or hooked up to something. What you really want is to help each child learn to use their time well.

Q. What do you do in your own life to unplug?

A. I begin the day and I end the day with an hour that is completely free of anything that is professionally demanding - using e-mail or Internet or anything. I end with literature, books that console and uplift, but require me to slow down. I want to begin my day and end it with a pause button of my own choice.

Interview was edited and condensed.

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