Are We Getting Distracted
from What Really Matters?
As a parent of two school-age kids and a true be- liever in the transformative powers of educational technology, I got my back up recently when reading the New York Times story “Growing Up Digital,
Wired for Distraction” ( www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/
Apparently I wasn’t the only one. The article itself drew
more than 400 comments within a day of publication. And
it prompted responses from bloggers for Tech Crunch, the
Washington Post, the Nieman Journalism Lab, and several
other media sites.
In a nutshell, the article contends that computers, cell
phones, and other digital devices are rewiring kids’ brains
and are “posing a profound new challenge to focusing and
Of course, this argument is nothing new. Complaints
that technology will be the ruin of us all have been around
since before the days of the quill and ink. What makes this
article so maddening, however, is that it ignores the possi-
bility that maybe students are distracted from their studies
because their studies are just not that relevant, interesting,
or engaging. It fails to point out that high school students
were bored with school long before the Internet.
In her post “Attention versus distraction? What that big
NY Times story leaves out,” Megan Garber, a blogger for
Nieman Journalism Lab, talks about that delicious kind of
learning that often comes from having access to the Web.
When interest becomes visceral, when caring becomes
palpable, when you’re so focused on something that
the rest of the world melts away—the learning that
results tends to be rich and sticky and sweet. The kind
that you carry with you throughout your life. The kind
that becomes a part of you. The kind that turns, soon
enough, into wisdom.
For the learner, of course, that is incredibly empowering. One minute, I’m looking up a recipe for spice-roasted sweet potatoes; the next, courtesy of a few
link-clicks, I’m learning that sweet potatoes are used
for dye in South America, and that there exists such
a thing as sweet potato butter. Which is, in a word,
awesome. But it also means, on the social scale, a new
permission to explore our idiosyncrasies.
Garber’s post ( www.niemanlab.org/2010/11/attention-
out) elicited six comments, including this one from
The world is changing. That’s fact. It’s not ruining
what was; it’s simply moving on. We don’t write like
the Romantics anymore, not because we can’t enjoy or
appreciate what they write, but because that is simply
not the world we live in. Heaven forbid a teacher can’t
control what a student learns or has to work harder to
keep the attention of the class.
M.G. Siegler, a blogger for Tech Crunch, also noted how
it’s actually the Internet that ignites learning for many stu-
dents: “I would guess that a lot of students these days know
what they’re really passionate about at a much earlier age,
thanks to the Internet.”
His post, “A Distracting Article about Digital Distraction”
drew 92 comments from both sides of the argument,
It’s not a question about whether you learn more from
online or from high school. For people who didn’t go
through the process of structured learning and think-
ing, it would be difficult to learn anything later in life.
School teaches discipline and also a structured way of
learning things. —Murali Veeraiyan
The issue is the curriculum, not the technology. When
I was in high school, I was instant messaging and chatting online all the time, but I turned out fine. Young
adults have always procrastinated on homework, it’s
not a new problem, and it’s far too easy to blame technology. —Aaron Franklin
The digital age is here to stay. Maybe it’s time we stop
resisting it and start embracing it.
Diana Fingal is the senior editor for L&L. She has been writing for and editing periodicals for more than 20 years.