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Modern devices keep kids from thinking deep

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Parents addicted to their electronic gadgets — and the children who follow their example — stand to lose brainpower as they turn over their thinking to smartphones, iPads and computers.

Two celebrated researchers/authors are trying to warn the public of the danger.

The author of one new book about the harmful effects of device addiction, "Conquering CyberOverload," calls herself "a recovering cyber addict."

She joins author Nicholas Carr, whose book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 2011, a book trying to warn the world about the dangers of skimming and surfing.

"I still am and will always be battling cyber addiction," Joanne Cantor told the Deseret News in a recent phone interview. "I thought I was going nuts when my craziness was highly explainable."

Cantor was overloaded, multi-tasking to the point that she was usually checking her email, texting her colleagues and trying to get through a busy life with little or no down time.

"I was never not online," she said.

It wasn't until she just stopped that she realized she was part of a growing worldwide problem that comes from having more technology, more access and more pressure.

"I started doing research and reading the research. There's a lot of research that's been done in the past few years that no one knows about," Cantor said.

Carr concurs.

"It is not only the content of our thoughts that are radically altered by phones and computers, but the structure of our brains — our ability to have certain kinds of thoughts and experiences," Carr said. "The kinds of thoughts and experiences that have defined our humanity."

The advantages of having immediate access to a rich and easily search store of data are many.

"The boons are real, but they come at a price," Carr said. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation."

When Carr shared his concerns with friends, he found they too were fighting to focus. Some felt they had become permanently scatter-brained.

Others feel books have become superfluous with even libraries changing to fit the modern world. The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages. WiFi and the Internet are the most popular services.

"The working memory is the mind's scratch pad while long-term memory is its filing system," Carr said. "Brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding."

Carr compared transferring working memory into long-term memory to filling a bathtub with thimblefuls of water. When one reads a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip. With the Internet, many information faucets are all going full blast at once. There's not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.

"We become mindless consumers of data," he said. "The pathways in our brains are being rerouted."

He recites a number of statistics that are daunting.

"In the months since I completed 'The Shallow,' Facebook membership doubled from 300 million to 600 million; the number of text messages processed every month by the typical American teen jumped from 2,300 to 3,300; sales of e-readers, tablets and smartphones skyrocketed; app stores proliferated; elementary schools rushed to put iPads into their student's hands and the time spent in front of screens continued its seemingly inexorable rise.

"We may be wary of what our devices are doing to us, but we're using them more than ever," Carr said. "We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls."

Both authors foresee a significant loss of interpersonal relationships for people wired to their devices, a shallowness of thinking and relating.

Cantor teaches brain exercises to help people integrate their thoughts. She suggests getting away from the devices.

"Take a walk without the earphones. Have dinner with people and no devices," she said.

Having a cellphone or an MP3 player or a laptop or iPad constantly with you is like a baby crying: There's a constant sense that something's happening somewhere and you're not doing something about it, she said.

"I'm not going to say never multi-task but do so on a limited basis. Acknowledge the complexity of trying to do two things at once. You lose focus," she said. "What we do with our gadgets is we don't work as well or play as well."

She urges parents to strictly govern devices for children. Too much time spent with electronic games and programs lowers the attention span, creates an expectation of an instant return.

"Our young children shouldn't be spending much time with screens and buttons," she said. "They need tactile experiences, manipulation."

Cantor said when stress is reduced the brain works better and that includes the ability to be creative: "It's a win-win," she said.

Cantor's message is one of gaining balance: "You can be more productive and creative if you alternate between focus and relaxation, and between connection and disconnection," she said.

Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.

Email: haddoc@desnews.com