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

Toward the end of the 19th century, as new modes of communication and transport — the telegraph, the telephone, moving pictures, airplanes — were invented, artists turned to more fragmented styles of expression, using Cubism, pointillism, Dadaism, the minute-to-minute immediacy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to try to capture how the world had changed. Even further back in time, Socrates fretted over how the newfangled written word would affect civilization, fearing it would cause practitioners of oral tradition to forsake memory, mother to the Muses. The written word could only ever be a lesser image, he declared, of “the living word of knowledge which has a soul.”

Yet what’s going on with kids today can’t be reduced to a simple generational tug-of-war over media and message. While the profs at Penn’s Graduate School of Education perceive technology as a great equalizer, it may, in fact, be the great leveler. The Nielsen Norman Group, a consulting firm whose founder was deemed by the New York Times to be “the guru of Web page ‘usability,’” has done extensive research into what makes websites successful. Its advice to clients? Nothing higher than a sixth-grade reading level on the home page, and eighth-grade on subsequent pages. One idea per paragraph. More “scannability” — highlighting, color-coding, bullet points. Teens, Nielsen Norman has found, are actually less equipped to make sense of the Internet world than their elders: They don’t have the reading ability, patience or research skills to successfully complete what they set out to do online.

What they do have, in abundance, is self-esteem — a faith in their competence on- and off-line that’s way out of proportion to their actual abilities. On the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which asks whether you agree, for example, with the statement “I will be a success,” my son’s generation scores significantly higher than previous ones. Why not? Gerry Hartey, a longtime English teacher at La Salle College High School, observes, “Everything is easy for these kids. It’s right there at the click of a button. They don’t even have to go to the library.”

Here’s the thing, though, as we fret about our kids’ online lives: It’s already their world, not ours. Young people have always rebelled against their elders, whether they were wearing zoot suits or listening to grunge. But a hallmark of civilization was that eventually, the kids gave up their rebel ways and folded, more or less quietly, into the adult world. That’s not going to happen with our kids, because their superior technical skills mean they’re already in charge. We’re being forced to adapt. We’re the followers; they’re the leaders. And it’s hard to imagine where they’re leading us, because they’re unlike us on such a fundamental level:

Their brains are different from ours.

THIS IS HOW WE LEARN: A sensory perception causes a synapse in our brain to become chemically excited. That synapse fires and excites another, and so on through the brain. The stimulation strengthens the pathway from synapse to synapse, making it more likely to be traveled again. Repetition of the perception wears the pathway deeper. So does emotion or shock. In the Middle Ages, children chosen as official recollectors of historic events were tossed into a river afterward, to more firmly etch the experience into their brains. (Scientists are working on a “day-after” pill for trauma survivors that would ameliorate this etching effect.)