Feature: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

They don’t read. They can’t spell. They spend all their time playing computer games and texting and hanging out with one another on Facebook. But the problem is much worse than you think, because the way your kids live now is rewiring their brains

She wishes more Cheltenham students would come to activities like football games. “They give you a chance to be more social, to get to know everyone,” she says wistfully. “Right now there are small groups of friends, but they don’t really intermingle.” She’s working on a plan to have student-council members sit and talk with the loners in the cafeteria, the kids who sit by themselves with their hoodies pulled over their faces. Ally is all about old-fashioned one-on-one connection. Her dream school, the one she’s trying to make, would be “like a family.”

Right now, inside the stand, the representatives of Cheltenham’s student council really are like a family — a modern-day family. Danielle’s on her cell phone. Quadirah is tapping out a text; Eva’s checking if she has one. So is Kareek. They’re all operating under the watchful gazes of Ian Haines, a special-education teacher who oversees the student council, and Dean Rosencranz, a math teacher, who helps. Haines has only been teaching for six years, but he’s seen a difference in kids in just that time.

“It’s not only that their attention span is shorter,” he says. “The feedback span is shorter, too. If you ask a question and give time for the class to answer, they get restless. They’re used to getting everything at a click.” He watches Kareek work his phone. “You can’t have conversations with kids anymore. They don’t have conversations. If they have something important to say, they text-message it.”

Eva, also curly-haired — black, not blond — is Cheltenham’s sophomore class president. “I’m really into leadership, and so is my family,” she says. “I love this school so much! From the first day, I loved it!” She spends three or four hours a day on the computer: “Just Facebook for me. MySpace is totally dead.”

“Facebook is going to die,” Ally warns.

“Somebody is going to come up with something better,” says Eva. “There’s a lot of hatred on Facebook.” She brightens. “It was a good way to campaign for sophomore class president, though.”

“What kinds of Skittles do you have?” a customer asks Danielle.

“We have the blue ones, red ones, purple ones …” Not to mention Nestlé Crunch, Almond Joy, Reese’s Cups, Twizzlers, Kit Kats, Dots, three kinds of M&Ms …

For these kids, life is like their candy counter, full of infinite choices. It’s pretty clear that Ally, with her vision of school as a place where people might, say, hang out at lunch and talk to each other, is waging an uphill fight against all that distraction.

It’s this candy-counter variety that makes technology today so powerful and, critics say, so dangerous. A raft of recent books with titles like The Shallows, You Are Not a Gadget and, yes, The Dumbest Generation argue that too many options and choices are stripping kids of their ability to process information and creating a massive, generation–wide case of attention deficit disorder. Children frantically multitasking to YouTube and FarmVille and Facebook become “suckers for irrelevancy,” according to Stanford’s Clifford Nass, whose newest book is The Man Who Lied to His Laptop. “Everything distracts them.”