Too Much Information?

Back when comic books were the rage, South Korean kids would gather excitedly at the corner shop to get a look at the latest translation of "Slam Dunk," a Japanese series about high-school basketball players. Now they congregate at places like PC Bang, a kind of Internet cafe without the cafe--a dimly lit room filled with smoke and the bleating of videogames. Seated side by side, they spend hours embroiled in online strategy games, building bases and launching raids against one another while talking trash. Choi Mun Gwon, 13, sits intently in front of a monitor, leading wizards and warriors in battle against the forces of hell in the action game Diablo. When he isn't at PC Bang, he's usually home messaging his friends on their computers or their cell phones. "My parents don't mind," he says. "I don't have that much homework yet."

The world that today's kids inhabit is diverging sharply from the one their parents grew up in. Unlike other generation gaps, this one doesn't revolve around mores, fashion or pop culture so much as technology. Kids have never been more wired. Not just in South Korea but throughout the world, childhood relationships are made or broken with a few strokes of a cell-phone keypad. Skills are being acquired less from books than from videogames. And the senses are bombarded with information that flows from every direction at an ever-quickening pace.

Indeed, kids are not merely wired; they're also constantly being rewired, as information providers explore new ways of delivering information. Text messaging via mobile phones was the new thing in Europe a few years ago; now Korean kids are using their phones to download songs at $1 a pop. Cameras are becoming standard items on phones and personal digital assistants; even some clothes contain gadgets like microphones and MP3 players.

Is this a good thing? Is the stimulation of new media preparing kids for a future high-tech world--or turning them into antisocial, superficial dolts? There are no definitive answers. Only in the past few years have scientists begun to plumb children's brains to see what goes on during the hours they spend engrossed in videogames or surfing the Web. What seems clear is that children are developing a far different set of skills than they had before. They are growing adept at handling visual information and multitasking. And the messaging free-for-all may actually help some kids overcome childhood awkwardness in relating to their peers.

Of all the gimmicks that have come and gone, young people are being carried by two main currents of technology. One can be loosely called videogames, and it includes a broad range of visually oriented experiences ranging from benign puzzles to intense, sometimes violent action games. The second current is messaging: anything from simple e-mail to Internet chat rooms to text messaging on cell phones to the exchange of images and voice recordings. Both forces are reshaping the experiences of millions of children around the world.

Ever since Atari started selling Pong in the 1970s, videogames have steadily increased in power and allure, to the point where they now rival cinema in visual impact. In recent years, advanced graphics have made their visual punch available on a wide range of devices, from small handheld gadgets to game consoles like Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox. And the devices are increasingly linked to high-speed broadband Internet connections--even wireless ones--giving players access to a whole cybercommunity of gamers.

Jonathan Wendel could serve as a poster boy for this videogame generation. Wendel first picked up a Nintendo control pad when he was 5. A year later, in 1987, his father brought home a personal computer. He started running flight-simulator software and spent hours absorbed in mastering aerial maneuvers. By the time he was a teenager, he had gotten into shoot-'em-up action games like Duke Nukem and Castle Wolfenstein. "My parents hated me playing videogames all the time," he says. "They grounded me constantly." When he was 18 he entered his first professional videogame competition. Since then the native of Kansas City, Missouri has won three world championships and taken home $150,000 in prize money. To keep his skills sharp, he spends more than 40 hours a week behind the monitor.

What happens to an impressionable young brain when it spends so much time exposed to a fast-paced visual medium? The short answer is: it adapts. The brain is plastic, which is to say it changes readily in response to stimuli. Cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bevalier began to suspect that videogames were altering the minds of young people about two years ago, after she gave some students at the University of Rochester in New York a test designed to measure their visual perceptions. The one student who did particularly well turned out to be an avid videogame player.

Intrigued, Bevalier put together two groups of students--avid gamers and non-gamers--and, over the course of a few semesters, gave both a series of computerized visual-perception tests. On average, the videogame players scored 30 percent better than nonplayers. These results alone wouldn't indicate brain plasticity; the gamers might simply have had better inherent visual skills. To eliminate this possibility, Bevalier formed two other groups of nonplayers; one trained for an hour a day shooting enemy soldiers in the action game Medal of Honor while the other played the more sedate puzzle game Tetris. After 10 days the Medal of Honor trainees scored higher than both the nonplayers and their Tetris colleagues. Bevalier concluded that action-packed videogames enhance the "capacity of visual attention and its spatial distribution."

Many questions remain: why are videogames so efficient at enhancing visual performance? Is it because they are graphically compelling, or because they overload the senses? To what extent do emotional responses--danger, violence, a sense of challenge--play a role? There's no doubt that emotions have a lot to do with the appeal of videogames. From the brain's point of view, gaming is largely a visual task, and as such it gets processed mainly in the right hemisphere. What worries scientists is that the right-lobe visual circuits have a fast track to the emotions. If you read about a violent event, the information is filtered through your more rational, analytical left hemisphere. Richard Restak, a neurologist at George Washington University and the author of "The New Brain," argues that visual media like videogames and television don't get tempered in this way.

According to a study by psychologist Craig Anderson of the University of Missouri-Columbia, an overload of emotion-charged imagery can increase antisocial behavior. In a study of college students published in 2000 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that playing violent games like Mortal Kombat correlated strongly to aggressive personalities, poor academic performance and delinquency.

To be sure, not all videogames are violent. Games like the Sims, in which kids create fictional families and then watch them live out their mundane lives, may actually foster problem-solving and role-playing skills. Such games favor not the brain's visual circuits but its pre-frontal cortex, which serves as a command center, putting things in context. "Videogames can either stimulate brain development or stifle brain development, and the difference between the two has to do with the design of the games," says Trevor Neilson, a World Economic Forum Global Leader for Tomorrow and executive vice president of the Casey Family Foundation.

Few studies have addressed the impact of games on the imagination. "It remains to be seen whether autonomous imagination can be stimulated by computers, or whether it's limited by the fact that you have to sit in front of a screen with a mouse," says Jerome Singer, professor of psychology at Yale University, who is working on a book about the impact of electronic media on kids' imaginations. There's even some evidence that gaming may make kids smarter--or at least test better. James R. Flynn, a philosophy professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, says that videogames may have contributed to an increase in scores on IQ tests that measure quickness in solving pattern-recognition problems. This doesn't correlate to more street smarts or higher academic performance in kids. If anything, it probably means they're better suited to being fighter pilots or air-traffic controllers. That's not a bad thing, but it's nothing to get too excited about either.

The most unambiguous benefits of new technology may lie in its most frivolous applications. Kids have always immersed themselves in endless conversations with their peers, and they'll use any technology to get an edge in this pursuit. The current cutting edge includes chat rooms and instant messaging, often via mobile phones. Analia Miyagi, a bubbly 17-year-old from Buenos Aires, logs on for two or three hours a day to stay in touch with her friends from school. "We all connect from our houses and have fun together," she says. "If I forget to say something to one of my friends, I can find her in the chat."

Scientists have just begun to study the effect messaging technologies are having on kids' social development. Right now, they're still trying to catalog behaviors. Researchers at the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University set up a group of 10- to 12-year-olds in a "virtual environment" and let them interact with each other. To their surprise, the kids chose avatars that pretty closely matched their real selves--same gender, same general characteristics. "Boys did a lot of moving quickly, changing scenes and emotions a lot," says psychologist Sandra Calvert. "Girls wrote a lot, much more than boys."

The common view of technology-obsessed kids as antisocial loners may be ready for revision. In a study of seventh and 10th graders, UCLA researchers found no relationship between Internet use and loneliness, depression or social anxiety. That didn't surprise Elisheva Gross, a researcher with the Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA. "From the perspective of developmental psychology, and particularly our study of intimacy, well-being depends on close interactions with others," says Gross. The technology encourages kids to keep in touch with real-world peers, not to retreat into an isolated fantasy world.

Some kids used the technology to interact with classmates they otherwise wouldn't know. Gross recalls one teenage girl who talked about how great it was to chat online with the most popular girl at her school--particularly since they didn't normally hang out together during the day. And when it came to approaching the opposite sex, instant messaging was a whole lot less stressful than getting up the nerve to speak to somebody in the school cafeteria. "Kids may be able to use the Internet as a way to explore romantic relationships, flirting and even just exploring friendships with the opposite sex in a way that wasn't available before," says Gross.

Of course, the ability to pop off notes to anybody--especially behind the veil of anonymity--can be a terrifying freedom. According to Miyagi, the cyber social life is tricky to navigate. Chat rooms, she says, are "full of liars" and "very superficial. There's nobody who tells the truth, ever."

Perhaps the issue is less what young people do with new media than the demands it makes on their senses. Multitasking--the practice of performing several tasks simultaneously--is a crucial skill for survival in today's world. Whereas television used to run "crawls" of information at the bottom of the screen only during emergencies, they're now used routinely. Instant messaging can involve keeping several streams of conversation going at the same time.

But brain research shows that the mind doesn't switch its attention from one thing to the next instantaneously; in fact, it takes about seven tenths of a second. David Meyer, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, had adults switch back and forth between doing math problems and recognizing shapes. The subjects took longer to do both tasks simultaneously than they would have taken to do one at a time--and they did them less accurately.

It's not clear what role electronic media may play in the near-epidemic proportions of attention deficit disorder among school-age children. Does the youthful brain raised on a diet of overstimulation adapt, and even thrive? Yes and no. "Kids are getting better at paying attention to several things at once," says Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA. "But there is a cost, in that you don't go into any one thing in as much depth." This is one problem technology has surely helped create. With luck, one day it will help solve it.