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Big Ideas
Growing Up Digital: Coming of Age in a Virtual World

The astonishing pace at which social and digital media have permeated every aspect of life means the upbringing of today’s children is profoundly different than any human has ever experienced. For nearly all of human history, communication and social interaction involved face-to-face contact. Now, screen-based digital devices mediate a substantial array of interactions. What are the consequences of this pervasive digital environment? Will it impact how children learn to read the emotions and behaviors of others? What is the effect on learning and our ability to pass on knowledge? Join experts in the fields of psychology, linguistics, and technology as they grapple with what it means to be a social human in the digital age. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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DALTON CONLEY: Our first panelist is professor of linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching Research and Learning at American University. Please welcome Naomi Baron.

CONLEY: Next is the Paulette Goddard chair of digital media and learning sciences and a professor in the Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development here at NYU. Please welcome Yan Plass.

CONLEY: Also joining us is associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist at the Child Study Center of the NYU Langone Medical Center. Please welcome Dr. Richard Gallagher.

CONLEY: Last but not least we have a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Temple University. He’s also a visiting associate assistant professor at Haverford College. Please welcome Lauren Sherman.

CONLEY: So we start with a couple of givens. We’re all social creatures as humans. And recent research suggests that social interaction in small and larger groups has media play a key role in our evolution and survival and fanning out across the planet. But that all happened in a very different environmental landscape. We know that in other cases take the obesity epidemic in the United States where we were evolved not to live in a land of Coca-Cola and french fries. There’s there’s consequences when the nature of the environment around us change changes. And for sure that that’s happened with social interaction with digital media and online platforms. So first from each of you I’d love to hear what you think the headline is about how social and digital media are affecting young people in particular as they grow up in the world today. Let’s start with you Naomi. You’ve done research on how social media is affecting children and teenagers reading and in other affects. What’s your biggest headline finding

NAOMI BARON: The biggest finding, as far as I can tell now, and I’m saying that because we really don’t have nearly enough research, is we assume that reading digitally is no different from reading in print. We don’t know that for a fact. My major concern is that the devices on which we do our digital reading are devices that were designed for very different kinds of activity and we can call it interactive activity sometimes socially interactive sometimes interactive with sites but it’s activity that leads you to spend a very small amount of time on it on a particular screen where it leads you to multitask. It doesn’t lead you to sit back and concentrate which is what in principle, not always in practice, but in principle print allowed us to do. So my major concern my headline is until we really know how to train people to take the mindset of reading in print and use that reading digitally we’re going to be incredibly shallow readers and there’s some studies that have been done that can suggest that’s what’s happening.

CONLEY: Lauren you’ve studied the effects of social media on the teenager and adult in real time. Can you describe your really interesting experiments?

LAUREN SHERMAN: Yes so it was really surprising to me that up until very recently nobody had actually looked to see what’s going on in the brain when adolescents or really people of any age were using social media. And so we have all these questions. We want to know what are the effects of social media. What are the effects of technology on the brain and so you think a very first step would just be to say alright let’s put someone in the MRI scanner and let’s see what’s going on in their brain when they use social media? And maybe the reason that it wasn’t done is because it’s actually not so simple because if we think about social media there are many different things right and many experiences that you have whether it’s on Facebook or writing a blog are indeed very complex. And so as much as it’s nice that you can be in the MRI scanner and you see a little screen in front of you we like to have experiments in the MRI that are very simple they are very controlled.

SHERMAN: And so it actually was a little bit hard to get from this really rich complex experience on your computer or your phone to something that we can look at in the scanner and what was really exciting to me when I was trying to think about OK how do we do this? Where did we start? Right around the time that I was thinking about this question Instagram started to become really popular with teens. And the thing that’s cool about Instagram is it takes what previously was very complicated, if you think about Facebook that you have several feeds at the same time lots of text, Instagram suddenly makes it very simple. So you have a picture. You have a little bit of information about that picture, maybe the likes and the number of comments.

And so the question that my colleagues and I decided to look at is say you’re looking at a picture on Instagram but you look at this picture and it has maybe two or three likes and then your peer looks at the same picture and now they see it and it has fifty likes. How is this little bit of information, how is this number going to change the way that you respond to the picture. Are you more likely to like it if it’s popular and how is it going to change the way that you take in information, is your brain response to that picture actually going to change? And we zeroed in on this idea of the like because it’s something that really is brand new, right?

SHERMAN: So for a very long time we’ve been telling each other how we feel about information. If I appear in front of you and I’m telling you a joke I get sort of an idea of your response based on you’re smiling or your laughter. But now we have this really interesting new context where I’m getting a number that’s associated with something that I’ve created or something I put out into the world. And so what we found is that this little number, the number of likes on a photo, affected how likely teens were to like the pictures. So they were significantly more likely to click like, I use the word like a lot when I talk about this, they’re significantly more likely to click like on the picture if they believe that many of their peers have also liked it. So we get this peer influence is kind of happening in a new way online. And then we also saw that their brain response was changing that when they looked at a picture that had a lot of likes versus a few they showed more activation in a number of different parts of the brain parts of the brain that are involved in social cognition and thinking about your world parts of the brain that are involved in visual perception, so even though they’re seeing the same thing that parts of the brain that process visual information are becoming more active which suggests maybe they’re scanning it a little more carefully, paying attention to it in a different way. And then the really interesting thing that we find is that parts of the brain are involved in reward and reinforcement. So getting a reward of responding to that reward being motivated to do something in the future. These parts of the brain were becoming more active when they saw that a picture had a lot of likes and especially if they saw that their own picture had a lot of likes as I’m sure you can imagine.

CONLEY: So you’re basically saying likes sort of like chocolate or sex or crack will activate our dopamine reward system. And how is this new? How is this different than what teenagers have been doing subtlety for thousands or millennia?. So so what’s particularly new about digitality if that’s a word?

SHERMAN: Yeah, I mean that’s kind of an open question to some extent it is something that has already existed. Right? So the idea that peers are being influenced is absolutely not something that is new. The idea that peers are very motivated by what or that adolescents are very motivated by what their peers think is certainly something that already was happening for a long time. And so some of the questions that we’re really interested in exploring because again this is something we don’t know a lot about, is is this something that is really new? Or are we just seeing this kind of recapitulation of what we already knew about adolescence. There are some things that make social media very different. One is that now there these numbers associated with information. So the experience that you get of seeing that people are liking you is a little bit more like a currency. Right now it’s quantifiable. And so that’s kind of the big question is this in any way changing the experience of getting information from your peers?

CONLEY: And what’s great about your experiment was that it was an experiment you actually manipulated a number of likes that the photos got. So you basically control the popularity.


CONLEY: Currency there. But the cost of doing an experiment is that you’re seeing something in your fMRI or or any other measures in real time that is perhaps a short lived effect.


CONLEY: Richard, as a child analyst and psychiatrist you’re seeing sort of more globally the longer term effect of the accumulation of these kind of dopamine surges and disappointments and so forth and multitasking in what it’s doing to our memory and all those kind of things. So are you seeing more ADHD, more social disorders, more mutism. What are you seeing in your practice?

RICHARD GALLAGHER: Well in fact I think what’s really important about these different forms of social of the digital tools is that they are one of the headlines in a way to be able to provide our work is work oftentimes in terms of summarizing what we have been finding out in the research. And I think it’s really important for everybody to think about them as tools that are for communication, for entertainment and for education. And that just like other tools they have advantages and disadvantages. And I I think that some of the debate that has been around about some of the negative aspects of digital media and digital tools is that there’s like some global effect that is all in one direction. So there’s the debate about the positives there’s the debate about the negatives and what’s really true is that people are pretty variable and that there are positives and negatives and it does impact people in different fashions.

GALLAGHER: So that we do see that some persons,

in getting heavily involved with games do end up having more difficulties with their attention especially if they are engaged with these activities at a young age. If they get involved a lot of this activity is in fact a dose response relationship, in some of the studies there’s an indication that if you’re involved with gaming for about an hour a day it’s going to enhance your attention. If it’s more than three hours a day then it starts to deteriorate and it has an impact on lots of other activities that require some attention. The same thing can be true with social media. It depends on how you interpret the information.

GALLAGHER: Persons that get involved, there’s a lot of concern about Facebook and seeing how wonderful everybody else is and like how diminished your life is in comparison. If people approach it with an envious way of dealing with things it does result in more anxiety and depression for adolescents. Than if people just say well this is interesting. And is not going to be too concerned about where I where I stand. So I think the headline I would like to present is that we need to be careful we need gather a lot more information to know about the positives, negatives and also the impact it has on people individually.

CONLEY: Just to push up on that one point you said. So let’s take the example of the kid who games for more than three hours a day. How do we know and let’s say they exhibit signs of depression or loneliness or inattention how do we know that’s not, the gaming is not the effect and not the cause?

GALLAGHER: There’s a there’s a good number of longitudinal studies. There clearly is an indication that for example in clinical populations kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are more prone to get involved with gaming. But in terms of longitudinal studies looking at kids at a one time point and a later time point there is an indication that they get more involved with problems with attention, if you know after extensive amounts of use.

CONLEY: I’m also aware of another study maybe you were involved in Florida where they they send kids off to camp for like a little under a week and one group they took away their media and the other group they let them keep it at the end, of course, the ones without the media had a better time but they could also actually perform better on measures of social cognition, reading other people’s emotions and empathy et cetera. So you would that’s consistent with what you’re seeing in the clinic?

GALLAGHER: Well oftentimes yes. Now again there’s also benefits for some kids that are socially isolated. For some kids that have a little bit of difficulty with some of their social skills some aspects of social media and some aspects of games that involve some social interaction, especially the multiplayer games, sometimes that’s better. That that sometimes results the kids sometimes coming more out of their shell. And actually establishing community across boundaries.

CONLEY: Especially when they have very particular interests.


CONLEY: You know Wikken golfers of the northeast Baltimore are…OK.

CONLEY: I think Jan you have a more positive headline for us or you were kind of mixed? So we’re going to end with the positive.

JAN PLASS: As I was looking to everybody I tried to decide if I should come down in a positive way.

CONLEY: You’re our only hope.

PLASS: Yes, Obi Wan. I’m going to, I’m going to start with the positive side because we can always go back to the negative side that’s always soeasy.

CONLEY: And I’m sure we will.

PLASS: And I’m going to tell you why I want to start with the positive side but let me start by by saying my headline is. We live in an age that is unprecedented as far as the educational opportunities are concerned that our children have now. Not just in this country but all over the world based on things that are designed in this country and all over the world. And so I do not just mean that we have information at our fingertips on the web. I also mean that we have simulations in which you can explore scenarios that you don’t directly have access to. We have games that can motivate those who have decided to disengage from something that they thought wasn’t really of interest to them. We have so many genres now of educational environments available to us that teachers nowadays are almost complaining about the wealth of different information and they don’t know how to choose from that. That did not used to be the case when I was in school. I very clearly remember not ever having any of those tools and some of the adults in the room probably that resonates with you.

PLASS: So we have not only this unprecedented time of wealth of information and high quality information coming directly from the source, from NASA from from all the from all different kind of organizations that have done the research and are presenting the results. But we also are entering an age of well, shall I say accountability. But what I mean is that is an age where there’s a quantification in a positive sense of what how we’re actually doing. And so what we’re seeing is, there was first the quantified self movement in terms of how you know how many steps you took today which is exciting. Or I know how many miles I ran or bike this week, which is also exciting but we’re starting to see systems, adaptive learning engines that come out that tell you what your memory strength is about what you’ve learned. What you’re good at what you are not good at. And so we we’re entering this age where we get feedback about our learning personalized, not as a group which is easy right, but personalized that open a number of opportunities that we’re only barely starting to understand.

PLASS: And so I said I would give you an example. I’m going to keep it short. We just finished a study with Syrian refugees in Turkey. As you know there’s a huge crisis in Syria. Lots of families millions had to leave their homes. Turkey is one of the countries that took in the most of of those refugees and they’re living in camps. So the opportunities to learn would have been very very limited had it not been for digital media. So we were asked to help out and we designed a four week curriculum where they studied for two hours a day five days a week for four weeks. We taught them how to code. We taught them how to learn Turkish, because you cannot get into school if you don’t know the language. We added cognitive skills training especially executive functions training. And because there’s a lot of hopelessness and lack of positive outlook we added a game that actually gives you full control over your own environment. Some of you guys might be playing it, Minecraft. And so. So we had this curriculum that is largely based on entirely based on digital media and largely on games. And we saw after four weeks so many positive indications of having a positive impact on that that we’re now seeing to to scale this up. And so if one wants to look on the positive side those are some of the examples that I would want to give.

CONLEY: I mean I volunteer for a online only tuition free university called University of the People that’s trying to reach the same underserved populations. But you’re also teaching at NYU and you’re teaching both digitally only and in the classroom in the brick and mortar sense.

CONLEY: What are the take home headline lessons, if someone was going to try to develop pedagogical games online?

PLASS: Yeah that’s a that’s a really loaded question. Let me start by saying that I do not believe that entire curriculum should be game based. Recently we’ve used games for brain training. Kind of a topic that is a little bit controversial ever since the Luminosity got fined $52 million for making false claims about how effective they are. So we decided well let’s look at that as researchers right. We were interested in that, executive functions as underlying almost everything we do. Right now you’re using all of your executive functions. You’re inhibiting the desire to do something else. Perhaps you’re using your working memory. Your the shifting function is when different people talk and have different ideas then you shift and that’s cognitive flexibility involved. So it’s something that we do for almost everything we do of thought and action and emotion and it can be trained. That’s the good news.

PLASS: It’s also something that as students, children who don’t have parents who can spend a lot of time with them because they’re need to work two or three jobs. They don’t get the opportunities to train the executive functions, which is one reason why we see an achievement gap in schools. So what if you had a game that could train your executive functions and was actually a fun game to play. And so we built some of those. We’re testing them. What we’re doing is design research so we compare two different versions we say here. You know we actually worked with 11 to or 12 to 15-16 year olds a lot. We give them the games and they play two different versions. One might be adaptive. One might not be. One has different game characters than the other etc.. And then we look at which one works better. And in the end we see what the overall outcome is on academic achievement. Does it actually enhance your performance in school etc. and if that’s all the case then they’re all available for free on our website. You can play them at your heart’s desire and see if that works for you.

CONLEY: That’s I think it was too much positive. Now we tried.

CONLEY: A few years ago there was a study at UCLA that divided people into learning something while they were multitasking. And the other group of course, were directed to have their full attention on on not on the task of learning, of memorizing something. And not only did the ones that gave their full attention of course do better on recall and in learning a task they actually encoded in their brain differently. So they, the multi-taskers they found that there’s striatum was more activated and it was encoded as procedural memory which is like driving a car where it’s a habit, but you’re not as conscious of it. And the people have focused store the new knowledge and the new skill as declarative memory and the hippocampus and the benefit of declarative memory is that it allows you to abstract from the particular to the general. So if you want to drive a car maybe you don’t want to drive a motorcycle or a plane but if you know how to solve a proof of you know partial differential equation you might be able to transfer that to something else that has the same basic logical framework.

CONLEY: So are we all, Lauren, I’m looking at you you but anyone can jump in. I mean one of the consequences of the enormous number of hours that we have our devices with us and are on them and particularly young people are we increasingly becoming kind of rote machines where we learn how to do things through procedural memory and that doesn’t sound really great for the age of the coming bots where we really need to think in a more abstract level to justify our usefulness over a robot. So what are you finding in your research? What are the consequences of multitasking or our continuous partial attention?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I haven’t studied multitasking in particular. Most of the stuff I’ve looked at it’s more in the social domain as opposed to the cognitive, although the really interesting thing about smartphones is now you’re multitasking with social information as well. And with multitasking it sort of does depend on the kind of multitasking. So if you are task switching very rapidly in certain cases, you’re not actually able to multitask what we think of as holding two things in your mind. You’re going back and forth and so as you mentioned there are some disadvantages to doing that. On the other hand there are certain ways that if you’re multitasking during a video game, if you’re playing sort of an action video game where you have a lot of information in the environment and you have to keep track of that first person shooter, for example, those are situations where you might have someone over here and over there and now you are multitasking in the sense that your attention is focused in multiple areas.

CONLEY: And the really interesting thing is that there’s some research that finds that those kind of games do improve your ability to hold information in your mind at once. And so when we say multitasking it really depends on what we’re talking about because on the one hand you get people who are gamers are actually better at one kind of multitasking. On the other hand people who tend to report that they do a lot of using social media while they’re doing homework and that sort of thing that they often will show lower performance on certain tasks. So again it’s this idea that it really depends on how you define it, that there are these benefits or detriments but it’s not one thing even with multitasking.

BARON: Interestingly when you survey, surveys were done a couple of years ago and you ask high school students, “when you multitask do you think that your performance academically, when you’re sitting doing your homework is degraded?” they’ll say no no no!


BARON: I think, unless someone here knows more, it’s really only the first person shooter action video games that is suggesting that you can get good at that kind of multitasking. So you’re entirely right you have to think about what do we mean by multitasking.

BARON: If you’re playing….

CONLEY: Wait, are you saying that if I let my son play first the first person shooter video games then he’ll be able to listen to music and

BARON: No,then he’ll be able to..

CONLEY: Watch instagram while he’s doing his homework?

BARON: I wouldn’t count on it. Then he’ll be able to do the first person shooter games really well. And we really don’t know about transferability to other domains. We know there’s certain kinds of activities that go together. If you play the piano you need two hands and you need your feet. OK, is that multitasking? It is in the version because all you have to do is look at someone learning to play the piano to begin with. And you can’t coordinate both hands. I’ll never forget when I was teaching my son to drive, he said I’ll look ahead and you look in the mirrors for me because I can’t do both. And then eventually you’ll learn you have to coordinate those pieces.

BARON: There has been research that suggests there are certain people, maybe two to five percent of the population who are super taskers who actually can do well in multitasking. But the experiments that were done at Stanford a number of years ago said the people who say I’m really good at multitasking were probably worse. In fact the data shed showed were worse than the people so I’m sorry I can’t keep track of multiple things at the same time.

But there’s one other point I’d like to make if I could and that has to do with what is it we mean by learning? And part of the question about whether digital technologies are helping us learn or not is that on the one hand digital technologies are really good for finding facts. Or for finding pieces of information which may be collections of facts. And we use the technologies for getting those little pieces. However if we don’t have a context that says there is more to learning than this…there’s is something we want to call knowledge. There’s something that’s called two years from now. How did you integrate those pieces that you learned? Then I think we’re missing out an important part of what learning should be about.

BARON: The same thing I think goes for adaptive learning for certain subjects can be absolutely superb and far better than the vast majority of teachers most of us have had. On the other hand one of the problems or one of the challenges of adaptive learning is if we say this could work in any discipline, you then have to say for doing philosophy how do you make that adaptive for a learning tool. And are those the things that are most important to learn in philosophy or is that a way of thinking about problems? And I don’t know that we know how to code that into smaller pieces and if you can figure it out please help.

PLASS: I’m not sure that’s something that I can figure out this moment but I can say that the term ‘adaptive learning’ evokes certain people and certain ideas in certain people and from just just listening to how you describe it I can imagine how you would think about it and I imagine everybody else here has a different opportunity, a different experience and what adaptive might have meant. And that’s the problem with adaptivity and personalization as this other buzzword that we’re using right now personalized learning, adaptive learning, individualized learning. And nobody really knows what the differences are, or better yet everybody has their own definition but uses those words interchangeably.

PLASS: So adaptivity the way I would describe it means that any learner at any time gets what that learner needs to succeed. Right? And if that is applied to philosophy that would mean entirely different things than if I learn math or language. Right but we don’t know how to do that yet, right?   So we have and I developed just to explain it to myself, I developed this taxonomy which is in a new kind of categories of how one could do adaptive learning. And when you look at that entire taxonomy there are maybe thirty different ways of doing that alone on the cognitive domain but then we have the affective of domain. We have a social, cultural domain. We have have motivational domains of where where we could adapt that way. Right. And so when you look at that and when you look at the existing adaptive systems when we’re talking about intelligent tutoring systems and other systems that kind of try to guess, to predict what you need and mostly that means you just solve this problem, this math equation. You’re not ready to solve this math equation. It’s a little harder. Right. That would never work in philosophy but that’s just such a small part of what adaptivity could mean. But as as researchers, as learning scientists we’re just in the beginning of understanding that. Or understanding how to build it. We understand what we would love to happen but not how to do it.

GALLAGHER: Also if I may, I think we’re in the process also understanding what it does mean to be multitasking because you know the definition is probably not clear enough. What’s often described as multitasking is really switching from one activity to another. There are some benefits for multitasking that have been documented in work with kids, in other persons for example. A colleague of mine did some work a good number of years ago on the idea of helping kids with attention problems and trying to see what happens if they listened to music as they’re doing their work. If they select the music, they actually improve their productivity. It seems that kind of the brain is multitasking.   There’s one part that’s kind of attending to the music sort of like activating the brain and making it like …..

CONLEY: Keeping it occupied? that part occupied?

GALLAGHER:   Kind of keeping it occupied, more like an idling in the car. The car is ready to move up and to advance when they present to a problem. And the same thing has been fun with adults when they’re involved with doodling and listening to lectures

SHERMAN: That’s the fidget spinner right?

GALLAGHER: Well it is.

SHERMAN: The idea is like you’re doing something you’re taking up part of that energy.

GALLAGHER: Yeah, but like doodling does results in people paying better attention to lectures that are being presented. So I think that to be really careful of these definitions because we can’t get overly broad in that regard and get confused.

CONLEY: So you’re in the business of actually giving best practices to to families the parents of how to manage this brave new world that’s exploding upon us. So what are some of the points to what are some of the basic things that given all this kind of context specificity on the one hand, on the other hand what do you tell us to do with our kids?

GALLAGHER: Well I think one thing that’s really important is to be a bit more very conscious of what we are talking about to be really tuned into it and not. I think one thing that has happened is that we think that this technology is not understandable. And that it’s like so brand new that it can’t be put into a context and perhaps I’m being too simplistic and maybe that’s the way my mind works. But I do think that it’s really helpful for people to say, well many of these instruments are a means of communication. You know so what do you think about the role of communication in your children’s lives and what kind of communication do you want them to have? There’s they’re tools for education. What kind of education what kind of content do you want to have your kids learn about and what what methods, what things you want to be involved with in terms of leisure? And I like to be able to suggest to parents that they think about you know, for example, with education you can use digital resources to be able to learn how to be you know some really problematic issues. You can you can learn to be a really good anorexic.   You can learn to be a good bomb maker. You can also do all the different kinds of fascinating things have been presented here already.

GALLAGHER: With communication you can get really good at being a bully. You can also get really good at being able to communicate to people in Alaska and you know in Africa and many other communities that you can really make a good set of connections. And with leisure time you can spend you know most of your time on junk and things that are not going to be very, very useful or you could do it on some things that are fulfilling and a little bit of junk. And so I think when parents do that and think about these things as similar to what they were presented as kids. And I think that helps kind of like put a context into that’s really very useful.

CONLEY: How how is a parent to control all of this? I mean, Dana Boyd at Microsoft Research argues that actually all of the stuff like the specific teen talk that parents can’t decode on social media sites and so forth, is all response to the fact that we over program and over control our kids today. Not an effect but actually, sorry not actually cause but the effect of what we’re doing already in trying to kind of control their worlds. I mean I’m I’m I’m not only de-friended from my son’s Facebook I’m blocked. So what am I to do it?

GALLAGHER: I think the thing is, you know kids and adolescents have always found some way to keep things secret. The question is like how secret and how problematic. You know I work in a clinical setting. You don’t want to be the parent of, and this is a number of years ago when things were just starting, to find out that your twelve year old daughter has gotten really obsessed with something and really concerned showing a lot of signs of anxiety because what has happened is she met somebody at camp. The boy’s been sexting with her and that she’s like now preoccupied and she doesn’t know how to stop it. And you don’t want to be the parent that finds out that when you go to Verizon and find out, OK here’s the series of texts that has been going on for months. You don’t want to be the parent that finds out that your teenage son, and these these are cases, has been involved with staying up and chatting and texting into, you know, five in the morning with a girl who’s suicidal. You want to be able to have some sense of what is going on. You don’t even know each and every detail you get to know the trends.

CONLEY:That sounds good but how does one effect that?

GALLAGHER: Well I think what you do is you do kind of like recognize that these again are tools you know like the example I gave in my talks is that you know we have chainsaws.   Chainsaws are very useful. They’re very helpful. They help us do a lot of different things. But then you have the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, can be used in a different way. Not to just think about it as being something that you can’t step into. Not to think that like OK every kid, and I’ve had some situations where people were saying eight year olds having an inalienable right to privacy. Well really? Did you grow up that way? Did your parents raise you that way? I mean we’ve been parenting for a long time. And I think we have to try to be logical and reasonable to say, well I do need to know a little bit of the trend. I do need to know what’s going on. I do need to be tuned in enough to be aware of what you’re doing.

PLASS: And the technology tools that we sometimes feel are so overwhelming that we don’t even want to start to understand what our children are doing can also be used to help with that. Right? So I have my favorite app on my phone is the one that lets me turn off the Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi in our house is tightly controlled because both of my kids would be on at all times if I didn’t. And for a while we collected the devices and then they got really smart and they were hiding them. So now you can hide your iPod as much as you want but the Wifi is off or it’s on for certain hours.

CONLEY: And they have phones with 4G?

PLASS: Well so there’s that right. So you need to look at. You need to look at all the different ways of how your children manage to get the information that they want to get. But what I’m saying is that. That, and I think that’s Richard’s point, that that has always been the case. We just have to not give up or give in to say, well technology it’s just so hard to understand what these kids do nowadays so we just let them do anything.

And what’s interesting is my fourteen year old, and I probably shouldn’t mention his name the poor guy, but he will tell me about other kids in his class that have far more control over their digital life than he does. And he says it half admiring and half kind of you know understanding why he does not get that from us. He’s also the one who asked me, Dad you do research on games for learning why don’t we have an Xbox or a PS4 in our house? And you know it’s the same reason.

PLASS:The other reason is that my office is right across the street so you can do that. But you know we need to take charge and is a new digital literacy on the part of the parents involved and a new digital literacy on the part of the children involved that we need to teach them about because the kind of things that they’re posting before they have found out what can happen or can the hair raising sometimes and so Don’t let them.

CONLEY: I’m not going to reveal my own, because this is going to be archived on the web, don’t want to reveal my secret ways to adapt to this. I mean your kids are 11 and 14. So I want to interview you again in four years and see if you can do that. Mine are 17 and 19. But and yes everybody is learning about what you should or should not text or post, you know understanding that you’re on a public stage part of part of the problem of social media or that of the problem. But is it the ratio of what sociologist Erving often called front stage and back stage, where intimate private things were done backstage and I think that created intimacy by letting people into your secrets. And front stage was how you behave here on front stage. But is that being eroded. Laura like is it is when you’re a blur. Are people still managing to maintain front and backstage on social media?

SHERMAN: I mean I think that. It is with everything kind of dependence. I can think of examples of teenagers actually using social media in a way that they divide that into a front stage and back stage. So even just thinking about the different social media that teens use. What’s been really interesting to me, in the I haven’t been doing research for all that long but in the time that I’ve been doing it seeing how the tools are change and seeing what is popular. So when I started doing my work on Instagram it was before too many teens were using it. By the time I was finished it was very popular and teenagers had Facebook but they are boring and they didn’t really use them and since then in talking to adolescents they describe it as a little bit more like Linkedin where I think at some point there is this message that colleges are going to look at your Facebook and so teens started thinking about it as Oh yes. Well a college is going to look at my Facebook so it has to look very nice and you know they’re thinking of it is this a way that they present themselves to the world

SHERMAN: Whereas something like Instagram which nowadays many many teens have Instagram is on private so it’s not something that most of the world can see. Now it doesn’t mean that there’s no possibility that something they post could ever get out there. But I think it’s definitely true that adolescents are very aware of one. Not always but but they do often have an awareness of when something is private or not when something is again ephemeral or not. It was really fascinating to me when Snapchat became so popular because for a long time what we talked about is the idea that social media, the Internet is there is always available and that in the case of cyberbullying for example that you go home and you still see this horrible message that somebody posted. And so the things that we worried a lot about this idea that information didn’t go away now was kind of being flipped on its head. And I think that’s why Snapchat was so exciting for teens.

SHERMAN: And you see what’s really funny is on Snapchat became popular I think a lot of parents worried that it would be used for sexting. Right? Because it’s you take a picture or video and then it disappears and so you can immediately think of what that may be used for and instead what teenagers use it for was to take really stupid pictures of their faces and send them to each other. And so it’s this idea that it’s more casual and it’s not something that has to look very beautiful and perfect. And now we’re also looking face to face on these tools. So you mentioned the study by my colleague Yalda Uhls also looking at when kids have their devices basically taken away and they went to camp for a week and then at the end of that they showed they were better able to read facial expressions and understand prosody and voices. That’s how he was done, I think maybe five or six years ago now and I really wonder if he was done again now if the same facts would be found? Because we’ve moved from a very text based hall to tools where they’re very audiovisual in nature they’re getting a little far afield of your question. But I think privacy you should get back to that is something that adolescents really do think about and they navigate or at least they may become more interested in tools because of the affordances as related to privacy. So I don’t think it’s true that that’s disappeared. I think it’s just it looks a little different now.

BARON: One of the questions that’s been raised a couple of times is is it different in social media then it, whatever it is right now in the rest of the world. And at this point I’ll put my linguists hat on and say one of the things we know about learning to use language, particularly by the time you get to be a teenager and somewhat younger for many of those skills is, you are really good at knowing what you say to whom when. And you know there are certain kinds of things you will say to your parents that you will not say to your friends and vice versa, that you will say to some friends but not other friends. There has been studies done going to this front stage back stage behavior issue. There are people who will say Are you certain what used to be emoticons and now it’s probably emojis or gifs, and I’ll use certain events with some people but I’ll use others with other people. So we know that by the time you were 10, 11 and definitely by the time you’re 14 or 15 you have a lot of these skills of shifting registers as it’s called, and what you say and how you say it to whom. So this question of being able to control your own behavior if you choose to. Is something you already have another skill for and you’re just translating it whether it’s with words or whether it’s visual images that work the same way.

BARON: But there’s just one other point that I wanted to make that comes to what I’ll call the technological determinism argument. It’s very easy to think this new technology is here. It’s going to take us over and we have to some extent set that with a lot of digital media. What can I do? It’s going to happen in the realm that I live in, oh digital texts are going to come you know print is over or this what can I do as a parent? I have no choice.

Well of course you have choices. And does that mean there will be some disagreements they’ll be disagreements. But there were disagreements about driving cars there were disagreements about alcohol. There were disagreements about your hairstyle. There were disagreements about when you get a phone. There were disagreements about are you allowed to drink. I mean these have been going on going on for a long time. The difference here is now there’s this device you can carry in your hand and you can do a lot more things, you hope, in private than you could before. But the issues haven’t changed and the responsibilities that we have whether we’re parents or teachers haven’t changed. It’s tough to try to figure out what works well with these media what can they do really well better than we could do let’s say in face to face conversation. What is it that they can be very dangerous about and we need to map this, and that’s something that we talk about occasionally but we haven’t really seriously tried to come to grips with.

PLASS: And I would argue that there’s another thing that has changed and we call that design thinking. So it used to be that the media we had and the information we had were kind of a given that were very hard to change, before the printing press probably more than after. But nowadays if you think that that Snapchat tool or the Facebook or the other tools that you’re using are not the ones you want to use you actually are empowered to learn how to program and do your own. And so I tell my children or student a lot about that, when you walk through the world with a designers perspective you look around, so those monitors are placed very nicely but those lights you know maybe you should shift them over a little bit. Or this app doesn’t work for me. This obviously was designed by a white guy sitting in a garage in Silicon Valley and that’s not me., impersonate someone else, that I have very different needs right. And then then you don’t have to say well there’s nothing there for me. What you can do is you can learn how to program. We now in New York City start in high school to do that. CS for all, for better or worse. I mean there are arguments for or against but the design thinking argument would be we give you the tools to change the world around you start a new company. We have incubators here all over town and make it a not for profit if that’s what you believe in. But but think about the world as something that can be changed and media in the world can be changed. And to me that is super exciting to come back to the positive side a little bit. That’s super exciting because that didn’t used to be the case.

CONLEY: Given the perhaps the positive side, didn’t Socrates complain about writing down text because you thought that that would destroy the skill with memorization? I mean how do you respond to that and that this is just that complaint over and over again in terms of your concerns about deep reading for example? I mean there is evidence you know there was a article on the cover of Atlantic that was one of the most read called is Google making a stupid? And there was experimental evidence that if you use Google would they allow people to use Google earlier and prime them that way, they did worse in terms of they were lazier in terms of remembering facts later on


CONLEY: So but obviously there must be some upside. There’s you know the world’s information or fingertips, so what’s different for humanities and for deep reading and writing?

BARON: Alright, you we wanted me to start with Socrates. I’m happy to begin there. You have to remember it was an oral culture. It was an oral culture in and out of Greece. It was an oral culture in Rome, there was a lot of writing in Rome anybody learn Latin? So there’s a lot of writing but it was an oral culture with an oral culture. And it used to be called England now the UK, up through really Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare’s plays, although they’re written down for the rescript so that people could learn their parts, they were meant to be performed. And only when after Shakespeare’s death and some of the members of his company put them together in the so-called First Folio around 1623 I think was it said ‘read them now!’ OK because it was an oral culture. OK so when somebody says are memories going to go. I mean but this was a time when certain people would know the Iliad they would know the Odyssey by heart. Thank you. OK. We live in a different time writing really seriously began for bureaucracies, for keeping track of records. Literature is a Johnny-come-lately for writing philosophy depending upon how you want to think about it because Socrates didn’t write the stuff down, Plato did.

BARON: By writing we were able to sit and reflect on what was written. And a lot of things have been I think appropriately argued that says one of the benefits of writing is you can come back to it you can contemplate it you might stand up and walk around for a while and then you come back to it. The thing about digital technologies is it doesn’t encourage our coming back.

SHERMAN: Well, so here’s a question so if Socrates was kind of looking ahead at the way the world changed he’d be very upset that there’s nobody who’s out there in the world who has memorized yet. Whereas we go about our lives and nobody is particularly concerned about.

BARON: Would he be I don’t know.

SHERMAN: Well, I don’t know, but say that if he was upset about the idea that there was some sort of degradation of mental faculties based surprisingly down or something I think about with memory.

BARON: I think about with memory. What I was talking about. Can you think through a problem. Let’s remember he’s in the really early days of Greek philosophy.

SHERMAN: So I guess what I’m saying is the way that I’ve always interpreted that quote isn’t there sort of a value judgment on it right? that he’s not happy about the way that things are going. So to speak and he you might be valuing different things in an oral culture than we would value now so I guess the question that I’m getting at is, is it possible that we won’t be having these conversations 20 years from now because what we value may not be your ability to answer questions about that you’ve read but it may be your ability to look information up and to know where to find it. I mean I’m being a little bit provocative on purpose, yeah,

BARON: You’re hitting it right on your head.

BARON: What I think is, it’s challenging today is we are tending to let our technologies reshape what we think learning, writ large should be about. And there are many people who say if you can learn to do a good search that’s much more important than what you have in your head. I think that the study that you just mentioned that says if you done a Google search on topic X and then it ask you what you know about topic y as opposed to another group of people who have not done a good Google search on topic X but I ask you about topic y the people who have done a search on Google for X will tell you they know more about topic why. Not having done any search than the people who didn’t have that I know how to do search therefore I must know all the substance that’s in the search. So I think what we’re doing is defining ourselves down in a very negative sense. We don’t have to do this. We’re doing it by default because the easiest thing to do with the Internet is do a search and feel that you know something.

We know that when students write papers they will cite their sources. The first page in the book. Some will cite the first three pages something from the first three pages almost nobody cites anything later in the book. OK. So this is even with print books. Digitally you go and whether my students do and I ask them the question for an online discussion? They say Ah. Where in the article is that topic that you asked us to talk about? And they read the line above and the line below and they talk about it and they say done!

PLASS: I just wanted to push push slightly back on one thing which is as a scientist I would say if I want someone to read the full article, I give them an assessment or a task that requires reading the whole article right? So if I make it meaningful to someone when you read this article you can solve this problem. They read your article or they can’t solve the problem. So I think we should as faculty as professors as teachers take on the challenge to say how can we make what we think of as a test of an assessment of a measure for how much we learn how can we make that more meaningful? And I think a lot of the, they only you read the line above the line below is that people are actually very smart in understanding how that question needs to be answered. And we learn that from games.

PLASS: You would think that people play games the way we design them and then you’re shocked to hear that people game the game. If you if you design a game that has too many rewards in it people will find the way to get those rewards. If you design the game with very few rewards where you might get the occasional star or so but you get actually when you do the task in the game well whatever it might be flinging birds at pigs are so, right? If you do that well you actually get something that matters to you maybe just in the context of the game but something that is that is in that moment personally relevant and meaningful to you. Then you’ll expend the energy. I you just get the sense that if I do this one thing right on the test and then I can move on then we don’t, right. And so so the challenge is that but I think the point is so well-taken that technology is shaping us and that is disempowering in a way that we shouldn’t let it right. And so we’re struggling with that because there’s so much of it and strange on that.

My favorite book came out a long time ago on this issue is Neil Postman’s “Technopoly,” wonderful book a wonderful read. Probably the first chapter that people will ever read. But I still really enjoyed it. And and one of the simplest examples that he gave and it took make everybody pause as we used to sit down at family dinner and we would have dinner, right? And nobody would knock at somebody’s house to come and interrupted dinner. But when the phone rings everybody jumps up, we still have to go and pick up the phone and say there are things that intrude in what used to be family life or life in general that we really have to ask ourselves is that worth giving up? Or. Or is that really something that we want to retain? And obviously opinions will vary on what we can and shouldn’t give up. But people walk into traffic to pedestrian traffic deaths up by 10 percent or so on. And people attribute that to people just staring at their phones, And if just walk around and you’ll see a lot of examples of that people will sit in restaurants across from each other both on their phones and deeply engaged in whatever they’re doing just not with each other. And so where do we want to push back as a culture as a society as parents and say when, we still can, and say look this is this is something that we don’t want to have. Right? And it’s very very hard but we can’t give up. We have to we have to keep fighting the good fight.

GALLAGHER: I think that debates and then these discussions I think are we we’re at a phase where we are recognizing that these are important and powerful tools but I also think that those debates and these concerns are letting us become sort of like catching up with technology. And I think if we look at history that is the way that it goes. And then when something new is brought out there is a little bit of time and there is a gap between like really learning how to use it well and effectively. And one part I’d like to also bring out is not only that working in teaching kids about using things effectively well and having them be cautious. I do think, from the perspective of parents and adults we have to do the same. Because there is a good amount of indication that when adults are not using these materials appropriately, indirectly they’re also harming their kids. There’s a there’s a fair amount of studies that are being looked at right now with regard to parents use of phones and in connection with connecting with their infant kids and kind of like giving their kids these these tools too early so they don’t get advantages.

CONLEY: On that note I want to ask one last question Richard, before we go to the audience, which is that the American Society of pediatricians recently revised their regulations used to be zero digital media for those under two years of age and now they’ve relaxed that, is that the right policy?

GALLAGHER: I think so I think it’s well founded in reason. All the concern had been based upon work that had been done that found that kids at this early age would inhibit their attention and their capacity to be able to pay attention. But more subsequent studies indicated that, well it’s so it’s within reason it’s fine. I think that is what is happening. We’re coming to reasonable understanding how to use things and I think that that’s what happened with the Academy of Pediatrics. And I also suspect that part of what happened because many of the people involved as they got younger cohort started to say well this really doesn’t seem like it could actually happen. So what what what what can really be reasonable ways?

CONLEY: And they’re concerned that kids who don’t learn these technologies at that age are really behind their peers?

GALLAGHER: Exactly. Exactly right. There’ll be a digital divide which would be inappropriate as well.

CONLEY: So we have 10 minutes for questions from the audience. Also in the back there.

AUDIENCE 1: This is more about adults and social media I suppose. But, I asked my dad thus a long time ago, whether, because he had just gotten on to Facebook and was talking to people he hadn’t talked to in twenty years, they both immigrated ages ago. And I asked whether it was better to forget about all those friends, you had met twenty years ago and let them fade out of your memory like you would before social media. Or is better to check in, you know this shallow bits of lives without being involved with them. Because ultimately which is more painful? Which is sadder and he never really responded an answer to that. So I always wondered from Neuroscience perspective what works? Is it better to a social, shallow understanding of other people’s lives or just let them fade away?

SHERMAN: So I think the question you are asking. You’re talking about a value judgment right? Is it better or is it worse. And this comes up again and again is there is never going to be this universal idea of what is better or worse if you’re talking about emotions or your particular experience that you have there maybe people for which having those connections long term being able to maintain them having, though it may be shallow continue in connection with someone is better or worse. I think there’s this hope that we have that we can look in the brain and suddenly become objective. Right? Is that because it’s science because it’s something that’s physical or biological we can use all these words and say all right now we’re getting from this kind of touchy feely psychology stuff where it’s just whatever you think you are. Now we’re going to look in the brain and unfortunately that or maybe fortunately, I don’t know if it’s unfortunate but it’s just not how the brain works I mean the one thing I will say that’s really incredible about our brains is that they’re very good at adapting to all sorts of different situations and, in fact, there are a lot of developmental cognitive scientists and I’m one of them who think that there’s something really special about the adolescent period that our brain is very sensitive to our social sphere because we’re learning about our particular culture. And so something that’s going to be valued very highly in my culture the number of friends that I have. The way that I interact with people may be very different from what is valued in another culture. And it’s this wonderful thing that our brains allow us to figure that out. It can be very tough when as you age your culture starts to change and the way that you grew up is now very different. But all of that is to say that the brain is never going to tell you whether it’s better or worse. And in fact for these questions sometimes it’s better to ask yourself or to ask somebody else sometimes. What we think of as being more touchy feely is actually going to have more of a direct effect on our outcomes and how to guide our behavior a little better.

CONLEY:Time for one last question.

AUDIENCE 2: My question is you talk about with a lot, a of conversations has been rear view kind of taking this to this point but if you just roll over what would be the headline ten years from now? What’s the impact on learning and how we behave? One last point, they are showing or some study is showing that the psychological profile of 16 year old the 25 year old is almost actually the same. That’s one of the changes, right. So going forward what was the headline? If you take your conversation for roll it forward a for a few years. What’s the impact on us and how things can change. From a learning perspective?

BARRON: I’ll take a first shot, I’d rather not go ten years because I don’t know what I could see but five years perhaps and I’ll start with the example of digital versus print. It was widely predicted around 2011, 2012 that print really was going to fade. And what has happened instead is we’ve really reached what’s known as a both-and world. There are certain things that we do digitally all the time the certain things that we are doing a lot in print and that’s not just one person or another person it’s independent bookstores are coming back and if you look at sales figures and growth levels for digital books versus print books, print books has a higher growth rate than digital does. And audio is way higher than both of them. I think the same thing is going to happen and maybe it’s because of the settling in period for are coming to grips with, we get to control what we do with the devices. We get to control what the devices are. We get to make our own decisions. I think we’re going to get tired of being shallow. We know that people who spend a lot of time on Facebook often either feel depressed because everybody looked better than they did or so they think or what came from those three hours? Zilch. And at some point you know our education patterns change or social patterns change. And I think at least within five years we’re going to see more of a balance and more a feeling that we’re in control of what we’re doing and we’ll have a range of choices and feel that we have the right to make those choices.

PLASS: I love that that as an answer. But I think in five years we will have had two more waves of new technologies that all promise to solve all of our right. And that then only ended up adding to what we have available at our fingertips that in our arsenal is just if you want. now have to choose which way of teaching and learning is the best way for me for particular subject for particular context etc. so I am unfortunate as much love your vision more than mine I think we are going to be faced with this ever changing technological world we live in. Where where new interventions and inventions will come out that will challenge us. And so we need to be up for the tasks we need to to be ready for that and how to do that would be probably a topic for another panel.

CONLEY: I think it’s important also to say that technology is not its own realm sui generis or isolated from other changes going on in society whether that’s changing age structures and in society as we age because of low fertility rate or rising economic inequality the changing nature of work and prolonged adolescence which is symbolized by Obamacare where kids can stay on their their parents health insurance till 25 or 26. So we can’t talk about the future. It’s hard enough to read and present. It’s almost impossible to talk about the future at all. Certainly in isolation from from other forces that are at work and we can’t predict. So thank you to everyone for attending this evening. Thank you again everybody.

Big Ideas
Growing Up Digital: Coming of Age in a Virtual World

The astonishing pace at which social and digital media have permeated every aspect of life means the upbringing of today’s children is profoundly different than any human has ever experienced. For nearly all of human history, communication and social interaction involved face-to-face contact. Now, screen-based digital devices mediate a substantial array of interactions. What are the consequences of this pervasive digital environment? Will it impact how children learn to read the emotions and behaviors of others? What is the effect on learning and our ability to pass on knowledge? Join experts in the fields of psychology, linguistics, and technology as they grapple with what it means to be a social human in the digital age. This program is part of the Big Ideas Series, made possible with support from the John Templeton Foundation.Learn More

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