In the context of the discussion about computerized grading, I thought this
might interest some of you - especially those with teenagers.
Keeping us at a remove from the reality of human response in what we write
is not the only way in which computer use isolates us from actual lived
social contacts and contexts. This piece from today's NY Times draws
attention to what I think is an often overlooked downside of the
obsession/fascination with virtual reality.
Thanks, Graham, for the copies of letters responding to Sartwell's piece. As
Rob says, sad that the protest comes from a teacher - but the conditions for
accountability and the testing process in U.S schools makes such responses
understandable. We are not free of the same pressure in our provincial
exams in BC either.
What Adolescents Miss When We Let Them Grow Up in Cyberspace
May 29, 2004
By BRENT STAPLES
My 10th-grade heartthrob was the daughter of a fearsome
steelworker who struck terror into the hearts of
15-year-old boys. He made it his business to answer the
telephone - and so always knew who was calling - and
grumbled in the background when the conversation went on
too long. Unable to make time by phone, the boy either gave
up or appeared at the front door. This meant submitting to
the intense scrutiny that the girl's father soon became
He greeted me with a crushing handshake, then leaned in
close in a transparent attempt to find out whether I was
one of those bad boys who smoked. He retired to the den
during the visit, but cruised by the living room now and
then to let me know he was watching. He let up after some
weeks, but only after getting across what he expected of a
boy who spent time with his daughter and how upset he'd be
if I disappointed him.
This was my first sustained encounter with an adult outside
my family who needed to be convinced of my worth as a
person. This, of course, is a crucial part of growing up.
Faced with same challenge today, however, I would probably
pass on meeting the girl's father - and outflank him on the
Thanks to e-mail, online chat rooms and instant messages -
which permit private, real-time conversations - adolescents
have at last succeeded in shielding their social lives from
adult scrutiny. But this comes at a cost: teenagers
nowadays are both more connected to the world at large than
ever, and more cut off from the social encounters that have
historically prepared young people for the move into
The Internet was billed as a revolutionary way to enrich
our social lives and expand our civic connections. This
seems to have worked well for elderly people and others who
were isolated before they got access to the World Wide Web.
But a growing body of research is showing that heavy use of
the Net can actually isolate younger socially connected
people who unwittingly allow time online to replace
face-to-face interactions with their families and friends.
Online shopping, checking e-mail and Web surfing - mainly
solitary activities - have turned out to be more isolating
than watching television, which friends and family often do
in groups. Researchers have found that the time spent in
direct contact with family members drops by as much as half
for every hour we use the Net at home.
This should come as no surprise to the two-career couples
who have seen their domestic lives taken over by e-mail and
wireless tethers that keep people working around the clock.
But a startling body of research from the Human-Computer
Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon has shown that
heavy Internet use can have a stunting effect outside the
home as well.
Studies show that gregarious, well-connected people
actually lost friends, and experienced symptoms of
loneliness and depression, after joining discussion groups
and other activities. People who communicated with
disembodied strangers online found the experience empty and
emotionally frustrating but were nonetheless seduced by the
novelty of the new medium. As Prof. Robert Kraut, a
Carnegie Mellon researcher, told me recently, such people
allowed low-quality relationships developed in virtual
reality to replace higher-quality relationships in the real
No group has embraced this socially impoverishing trade-off
more enthusiastically than adolescents, many of whom spend
most of their free hours cruising the Net in sunless rooms.
This hermetic existence has left many of these teenagers
with nonexistent social skills - a point widely noted in
stories about the computer geeks who rose to prominence in
the early days of Silicon Valley.
Adolescents are drawn to cyberspace for different reasons
than adults. As the writer Michael Lewis observed in his
book "Next: The Future Just Happened," children see the Net
as a transformational device that lets them discard
quotidian identities for more glamorous ones. Mr. Lewis
illustrated the point with Marcus Arnold, who, as a
15-year-old, adopted a pseudonym a few years ago and posed
as a 25-year-old legal expert for an Internet information
service. Marcus did not feel the least bit guilty, and
wasn't deterred, when real-world lawyers discovered his
secret and accused him of being a fraud. When asked whether
he had actually read the law, Marcus responded that he
found books "boring," leaving us to conclude that he had
learned all he needed to know from his family's big-screen
Marcus is a child of the Net, where everyone has a
pseudonym, telling a story makes it true, and adolescents
create older, cooler, more socially powerful selves any
time they wish. The ability to slip easily into a new,
false self is tailor-made for emotionally fragile
adolescents, who can consider a bout of acne or a few
excess pounds an unbearable tragedy.
But teenagers who spend much of their lives hunched over
computer screens miss the socializing, the real-world
experience that would allow them to leave adolescence
behind and grow into adulthood. These vital experiences,
like much else, are simply not available in a virtual form.
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