Is the Web Making Children Illiterate?

July 26, 2008

A surprisingly strong article appears in tomorrow’s New York Times (July 27, 2008) that tackles the ongoing and vexing issue of whether the increasing hours spent by youngsters on the Web, often at the expense of reading books and other sustained verbal constructions, is turning them into babbling drones, or whether it’s possible that new forms of literacy might be accompanying this dramatic change.

I write “surprisingly strong” because newspapers often treat these complex issues by merely interviewing a few “representative” humans, and then drawing conclusions on this worthless limited data. The result is more “color” than analysis, akin to the tripe we encounter when the subject is “what’s your favorite movie this summer?” The Times‘ piece “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” weighs in at nearly 3500 words, and while we do meet the Konyks, the Sims (not from SimCity!), and the Gaudets, we’re also treated to a bevy of outside experts with conflicting viewpoints, and are provided references to several important reports.

You’ll find all of the standard anti-Internet arguments well-represented in the article, but also fresh ideas. We’re reminded once again that “at least since the invention of television, critics have warned that electronic media would destroy reading.” But, the article continues, “what is different now, some literacy experts say, is that spending time on the Web, whether it is looking up something on Google or even britneyspears.org, entails some engagement with text.”

Further, “some Web evangelists say children should be evaluated for their proficiency on the Internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension. Starting next year, some countries will participate in new international assessments of digital literacy, but the United States, for now, will not.” (Surprised?)

There’s lot’s more to discover in this well-balanced account of the debate. It’s the best summary I’ve encountered to date.

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