Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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April 24, 2014

WSJ column misses mark with parenting advice

The Wall Street Journal says there's no difference between a child whose primary interest is reading and a child who uses social media obsessively.

In WSJ's March 22-23 "Mind and Matter" column, Alison Gopnik recounts, in fable form, her childhood obsession with "The Device," which turns out to be books. She then claims to know of research supporting the notion that reading books "hijacks" large portions of a child's brain, portions "that had originally been designed for other purposes."

I keep up on research of this sort, and while I can't claim to have seen it all, I've not heard of any that compels such a conclusion. The studies I'm familiar with all support the view that the human brain is ideally suited to learning to read. If symbol-based print media (i.e. books) are presented to a child at the proper time and in the proper fashion, the brain engages naturally and effectively. Learning to read does not "hijack" areas of the brain designed for "other purposes" (that Gopnick, most conveniently, never identifies). In effect, she describes the brain as a zero-sum operating system in which learning one skill displaces the ability to learn something else. That might describe a mouse brain, but it does not come close to describing the amazing learning capacity of a human's.

To bolster her thesis, Gopnick cites danah boyd (boyd does not capitalize her name) of New York University and Microsoft Research. Obviously, boyd is not impartial. She works for a company that is heavily invested in new technologies, and it's clear from her Wikipedia biography that she thinks social media are way cool. How did she come to her conclusions? By hanging out with teens and interviewing them. In other words, to find out how social media are affecting teens, she gets social with teens. To be clear, this is not science.

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