Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
People who started working with computers in early childhood are really different. They think in terms of what the technology can do. I wrote that sentence; I know the words. But I can’t imagine what that involves.
A few years ago during a lecture I gave to a group of executives, I mentioned my ongoing frustration with my cell phone and the added insult of a manual written in incomprehensible techno-babble. After the talk was finished, a woman came up to me and said, “The thing is, you went to the manual. My kids would never do that. They’d just pick up the phone and start pushing buttons.” Unlike she or me, her children think from the perspective of technology.
Technologically savvy young boomers (aged 37-46 in 2001), GenXers (19-38) and Gen-D (Digital) (14-29) are different from most of the rest of us. We have all been trained to do logical linear thinking: from A to B to C. Effective Web thinking which the younger generations do, is very different. Thomas Stewart of Fortune magazine described the Web as “an infinitely branching fractile, like a river delta” that contains a zillion opportunities and a zillion distractions in the ecological richness. Fluid patterns and an infinitely branching fractile require the ability to conceptualize 3-dimensionally. I call the Web a 3-D digital nervous system.
The Web is like the neurons and synapses of the brain. The synapses are the connections of the brain’s cells – the neurons. With use, synaptic connections grow increasingly complex. When the neurons become interconnected, a stimulus in one part of the brain can go swiftly to any other parts of the brain. Like the Web, the brain is composed of 3-Dimensional neural pathways interconnected by synapses.
There is increasing evidence that being exposed to technology at very early ages has the effect of wiring children’s brains differently. When we’re young, the brain is very plastic and changes constantly in response to stimulation. When we learn something new there is a significant increase in the strength of, and the number of connections or synapses between the brain cells involved in that particular activity. While this is also true for the adult brain, it is especially true for children’s brains.
Today’s children have many sources of neurological stimulation. Some scientists believe that the intense visual environment that many children experience with rapid-fire television editing, media saturation and electronic games is hardwiring children to process cognitive information very swiftly. Though there is little research on the effect of early computer use specifically, University of Iowa neurologist Antonio Damasio thinks it’s likely that the kind of stimulation children experience as they interact with electronic media alters the way in which their neural circuits operate.
The people who will be most successful in navigating and using the potentials of the Web will be people who are not limited by linear thinking because they are able to think 3-Dimensionally. They will see where opportunities can be created through connections that are not visible to those whose perceptions are limited by A to B to C thinking.
Children who begin working with computers at young ages, even at 2 and 3, clearly develop computer skills that swiftly eclipse those of their elders. It is easy to see that children who get involved with the world of computers at very early ages, end up with a sense of comfort and ease with technology that others are very unlikely to match.
But something more important than being comfortable with technology might be happening: It’s plausible that when young children become facile with computers, they’re developing complex neurological connections. If that’s true, then the children with early technology experience may have a profound and permanent advantage over children who start later. They will have even greater advantages over people who began to learn to use computers as adults.
Many researchers have already observed that kids respond to computer games and other on-screen activities with 3-Dimensional movements that adults cannot replicate. The kids are able to synchronize the motions of their hands with the activity on screen with stunning ease. Early users of IT may be developing synaptic structures and processes that are especially suited for the effective use of computers and the Internet. If this is true, it’s doubtful that even intensive training would enable adults to catch up to IT sophisticated youngsters, in terms of intuiting the technology. Indeed, some educators have begun to ask if a fundamental reason the American public schools are ineffective is there’s a growing disconnect between the way the schools teach and the way many children learn.