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Technological Leaps: Will the Kids Really Be Alright?
Is the technology of the future more radical than the technology of the past? Alison Gopnik provides some historical perspective.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She is a columnist (every other week) for The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of over 100 journal articles and several books including “Words, thoughts and theories” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff), MIT Press, 1997, and the bestselling and critically acclaimed popular books The Scientist in the Crib (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) William Morrow, 1999, and The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. She has also written widely about cognitive science and psychology for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist and Slate, among others. And she has frequently appeared on TV and radio including “The Charlie Rose Show” and “The Colbert Report." She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California with her husband Alvy Ray Smith.
Alison Gopnik: So, one of the questions that we're all asking now is what effect are the new technologies, the Internet, computers, cell phones, screens going to have on the next generation of children? The answer is we won't know for another 20 years until those children grow up. But I think we can make some guesses based on our past human history. One of the things about human beings is that we've been technological beings from the very beginning. In fact, in a way that's the thing that's most distinctive about us, we use tools. We modify and change our environments. We create new ways of being in the world, both physically and socially. And that's what we've always done and we've always changed. We've always had culture, which enabled us to take the inventions of one generation and then modify or change them to suit another generation. So the fact that we have technology and the fact that that technology changes and it changes across generations, none of that's new. But curiously part of the effect of that cultural change is it always seems as if the technology that we grew up with his eternal, it's just part of nature; it has always been there. And the technology that our children come up with is part of a dystopian Mad Max future apocalypse. And that's also been true for as long as we've been around as human beings.
So, many of the technologies that you could argue really did have transformative effects on us are things like the printing press, the telegraph, the train. We don't think about a telegraph as being an amazingly disruptive new technology, but when telegraphs and trains were introduced there were just as many editorials in the paper saying these are awful ideas. They're going to reshape our lives in ways that are going to be completely destructive of human happiness. Now in some ways that's right. I mean the printing press really did completely change the way that we relinquish the world and related to each other. The telegraph meant that we went from communicating at the speed of a fast horse to communicating at the speed of light. That made an enormous change in the way that we functioned and related to one another. And I think it's quite plausible that things like the Internet are also going to make a change in the way that we think, the way we relate to one another.
But the assumption that somehow this time it's different, this is going to be the change that's going to destroy our brains or destroy our minds it doesn't really fit our history and it doesn't fit what we know from neuroscience and psychology about the way that childhood is this kind of cauldron of innovation. So one of the reasons why we have this effect, this kind of ratchet, this sense that the technological change in our generation is totally different than any of the others is that there's a big difference between the way we learn with an adult brain and the way we learn with a child's brain. So for adults when they learn a new skill it demands tremendous amounts of attention and energy and working memory. We have to put a lot of work into learning how to do something new. So when I have to figure out how to use my cell phone, for example, it feels effortful. I mean it is effortful and distracting. That's very difficult though from what happens with the skills that we learn when we're in the first couple of years of life, things like learning to speak or even learning to read.
When I walk through a crowded street full of billboards I don't feel as if I'm constantly being distracted because I have to decode what all those letters on all those billboards mean. And that's because I learned to do that at such a young age that it literally just takes place automatically without higher level control. And it seems plausible that that for a new generation children who are interacting with devices from the time their babies with touch and voice that kind of interaction will be as natural and spontaneous for them as reading is for me. Now they'll be different. It won't be the same as reading because interacting with a screen is different from reading. But I don't see any particular reason to believe that that's going to be that terrible evil technology as opposed to all the other technologies.
Socrates famously said that reading was a terrible idea. Books were not a good idea because first of all they would destroy our ability to do things like memorize all the words of Homer, and secondly if you had a book you would think that what was written in the book was true instead of engaging in a Socratic dialogue with the information in the book. And Socrates was right about both of those things. No one nowadays has a memory that's good enough to memorize Homer, and we do tend to think that things in books are true and we can't interrogated them the same way we could in conversation. But overall by and large the benefits outweighed the harms and I think that's going to be true for the new technology that we're grappling with now.
Kids in waiting rooms and on transport are kept placid with smartphones and earphones, pressed into their developing canals. Six-month olds already know they need to swipe to unlock an iPhone. Information darts in and disappears just as quickly on smartboards in classrooms. Our attention spans are shot. Our collective impatience is at its historical peak. Will it stunt early development? Is anyone thinking of the children? Well, It’ll be 20 years before we really know the effect that current technology is having on them, but there is no doubt it will change them. This doesn’t cause a swell of anxiety within developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, because a look through our history as animals reveals that’s exactly how we’ve always operated, and in fact it’s what sets us apart as a species. We use tools, we reshape our physical world, and our inner one. When the printing press and the telegraph were introduced, there were similar dystopian predictions of terrible change – and the world was transformed, certainly, but not for the worse. Our love of stability and familiarity is coming into conflict with the acceleration of technological innovation. Adults worry because it may not be intuitive to them, says Gopnik, but young minds learn differently. There may be trade-offs in the way things have always been but in history, by and large, the benefits outweighed the harms, and they will continue to do so. It’s as human to continually advance as it is to grapple with what is new. Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children
Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.
Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.
- Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
- A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
- With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.
Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.
Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.
But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.
A mixed response to technology
Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.
This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!
According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.
To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.
But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).
Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.
Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.
For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."
Screens, parents, and pandemics
Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.
But are these concerns overblown?
As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.
Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.
"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."
This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTg5NjY5MX0.tvGeUHIw5IB-El9o7ePqt-aLGTV3I_3SMk_B6neP680/img.jpg?width=980" id="7626c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7813ba6f9544a3d25025e682c8b723ba" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bHeinrich Berann's panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park" />
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain<p>Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.</p><p>As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (<em>see further below</em>). </p><p>However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent. <span></span></p>
Ash beds of North America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTAyNzczM30.klQwU7AQK8v2kcqlWQ_97CWDOYk72nDgT8kXO74aMWY/img.png?width=980" id="ce210" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f73d1cafa92b140b17915c89f097f45f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America." />
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.</p><p><strong>Huckleberry Ridge</strong></p><p>The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years. </p><p>This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas. </p><p><strong>Mesa Falls</strong></p><p>About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone. </p><p>It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota. </p><p><strong>Lava Creek</strong></p><p>The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera. </p><p>It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.</p><p><strong>Long Valley</strong></p><p>This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years. </p><p>The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed. </p><p><strong>Mount St Helens</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.</p><p>Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.<br></p>
The difference between quakes and faults<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODkzMDgxOX0.SbOloPk6Ert6Gr3oO2MjDvFpNpL5UY1lVAqczFyQ6uQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="d410d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="77d3ca41241b28a2dd1d9acf708015ae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Comparison chart of eruption volumes" />
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least. </p><p><span></span>Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.</p><p><span></span>What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago. </p><p>As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is <a href="https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/yellowstone-overdue-eruption-when-will-yellowstone-erupt?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products" target="_blank">only 5 percent to 15 percent molten</a>. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.</p>
Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.
- A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
- The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
- Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.