With 'Digital Nation,' PBS seeks adverse effects of technology

In a new report, PBS correspondents try to understand the impact -- negative and positive -- that constant connectivity may have on future generations.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Kids spend nearly every waking minute using technology, from reading e-mail to listening to MP3 music to talking on a web-connected smartphone, according to a recent study.

But what are the implications of such heavy consumption of tech?

PBS Frontline aims to find out with a new series called Digital Nation. In it, correspondents seek to identify the impact that constant connectivity could have on future generations.

Producer Rachel Dretzin joins digital revolution expert Douglas Rushkoff, once an evangelist for the positive effects of tech innovation, to find out whether all that tech comes at a price.

"In the early days of the Internet, it was easy for me to reassure people about what it would mean to bring digital technology into their lives," Rushkoff said in a statement. "Now I want to know whether or not we are tinkering with something more essential than we realize."

Essentials such as attention span, for example. In an age of growing prevalence of ADD and ADHD diagnoses, is copious media consumption to blame?

(If you've been reading SmartPlanet, you'll know that scientists are already working to find answers.)

And how will the emergence of an unfocused generation affect conventional teaching methods in the classroom?

In the report, Dretzin and Rushkoff visit the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to see "digital natives" in their natural environment. Dretzin also travels to California to the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media, or CHIMe, Lab to test her effectiveness at multitasking.

"It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking," says Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who administers the test to Dretzin in the episode. "They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we've done suggests they're worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly."

But it's not all bad: Schools in tough areas such as the South Bronx have reported increased engagement, attendance and test scores by incorporating interactive technology into the classroom.

Rushkoff and Dretzin also look at the social aspects of technology and how they affect our relationships with others. Visiting BlizzCon, a massive party for online role-playing gamers, they find folks that have spent days on end with each other -- but have never met face-to-face.

The duo also speak with Army and Air Force veterans to see how effective virtual reality therapy is -- versus pharmacological methods -- for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The common thread: Are we fooling out brains into thinking the virtual world is the real one? Just where does one begin and the other end?

And are we really helping or hurting ourselves by being plugged in?

Here's the trailer:

Digital Nation will premiere in the U.S. on Tuesday, February 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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