There's a question that many researchers today are tackling: are kids' brains somehow rewiring themselves (for better or worse) to be able to cope more easily with an onslaught of information from various forms of technology?
Based on what's happening in my house, I think the answer is definitely yes.
My boys, ages 11 and 9, have an unbelievable tolerance for noise coming at them from multiple directions. They can watch TV and play a game on their iPods at the same time, all the while responding to the ping of text messages that come through from their friends. They can search for songs on their iPods and then play those songs while checking out sports highlights on the computer. One time, my 9-year-old wanted to watch one episode of a favorite TV show on his iPod while watching another episode on the television... simultaneously.
I, on the other hand, can't take it. Everything seems so loud and jangled and overwhelming. I have to ask them to turn something off, to pick one thing at a time. Then, when I feel relief, they seem to feel restless.
Contrary to how all this sounds, we have a good number of limits on technology in our house. The kids spend tons of time playing outside, are involved in after-school sports and volunteering, invite friends over often and devote a decent amount of time to reading books with only music in the background. The iPods are their only electronic devices, despite requests for cell phones, tablet computers and an Xbox game system.
Still, they are definitely members of a generation in which, according to one Kaiser Family Foundation study, about 2/3 of kids and teenagers report using another form of media "most of the time" as they watch TV, go on the computer or listen to music.
There are big and troubling questions about whether an increased ability to process information more quickly also damages the skills of memory, focus, understanding and deeper thought. That does worry me, which is why I try to encourage my kids to slow down, to take time to appreciate the quiet things around them such as a pretty sunset, and to have actual one-on-one, unrushed conversations with people and truly listen to them.
I'm just increasingly amazed that when I feel inundated, they seem to feel relaxed. They seem more peaceful with an iPod in their hands as we watch a sports game or an episode of our family's favorite TV show ("The Middle" on ABC -- check it out). Without it, in fact, they tend to get up off the sofa and jump around more often.
I've even noticed that my older son does his homework better when he takes timeouts to fire off rapid questions about sports or music to me, his dad or his brother that have nothing to do with his assignment. He seems to be able to switch his brain back and forth far more rapidly than I could. We don't let him have any electronics around as he does schoolwork, but I wonder if I should be giving him little breaks to read a quick article on his iPod or shoot a text off to a friend. It sounds like an awful idea for me and my ability to get things done, but maybe it wouldn't be for his.
Am I contributing to a future generation of teenagers and adults with ridiculously bad ADHD? I hope not. I do know that many of my friends report the same scenes in their houses. In other words, I don't think my boys are more hyperactive multitaskers than their peers as a whole.
Their brains are different -- in my mind, that argument is over. The much tougher question is, what the heck do we slower-brained parents do about it?