Opinion Page

Shoreline Chamber of  Commerce and Patch posted this article on their website:

A better keyboard for your children

When I was a kid  I wasn’t kept busy by a barrage of text messages or Facebook posts. I was forced to create my own fun. Today, when I see my grandson amusing himself for hours with his pc, iPhone or iPad, I cannot help wondering if this is healthy for his brain.

To counteract the constant over-stimulation rampant in today’s society, I believe parents should be looking for ways to increase positive cognitive stimulation. The focus and attention required during music instrument practice, for example, is an excellent way to provide beneficial stimulation. Reading a piece of music requires focus and concentration as your child interprets a note, its rhythm and dynamics and then translates it into hand movements on the keyboard, etc. This mental exercise is repeated many times in the magic of music making. Moreover, reading and playing music encourages children to think both critically and creatively, valuable skills that will serve them well both in and out of the classroom.

Consequently, I was intrigued by Nicholas Carr’s recent book, Shallows. Carr, a well known writer on the Internet, who also wrote the popular book The Big Switch five years ago on cloud computing . He was right about cloud computing and I think his premise in Shallows is also correct.

Carr’s hypothesis in Shallows is that our perpetual online existence is rewiring our minds, replacing deep thought with information overload, and overruling attentiveness with a steady stream of interruptions and distractions.  For ammunition he cites a particularly troubling UCLA study that suggests our “working memory” — the contents of our consciousness at any one time — is becoming so overloaded that our short-term  thoughts cannot make the transition to our long-term memory, the important part of our brain where much of our creativity and critical thinking reside.

And Carr is not alone in his opinion.

Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote “ADHD is ten times more common today than it was twenty years ago. Although it is clear that ADHD has a genetic basis, given that our genes have not changed appreciably in that time frame, it is likely that there are environmental factors that are contributing to this rise”.

He hypothesized that “prolonged exposure to rapid change during critical periods of brain development…precondition the mind to expect high levels of stimulation”, a condition that contributes to excessive inattention in later life. His study suggested a direct correlation between hours spent watching TV and the extent of attention problems in school. Specifically, for each hour of TV children watched before the age of three, the probability that they would have attention problems at age seven increased by 10%. So a child who watched two hours of television before the age of three was 20% more likely to experience attention problems in school at age seven than a child who watched no TV.

On the positive side, Christakis also discovered that the more cognitive stimulation children received the less likely they were to experience attention issues in school. Examples of cognitive stimulation could be as simple as singing a lullaby to a young child or a visit to a local museum for the older child. The researchers found that for each hour of cognitive simulation, the likelihood of attentional problems later in life was reduced by 30%.

Armed with this information, what can we as parents do to minimize the negative effects of computer, video games and television on our children?  We should encourage cognitive stimulation activities.

Now back to music lessons: Music lessons force children to concentrate. Instead of viewing rapidly moving screens, they must focus on a single stationary sheet of paper. Reading  music requires a great deal of focus in order to interpret the notes and their rhythms appropriately, and then to translate this “information” into hand movements on the keyboard. Reading and playing music allows participants to think both critically and creatively, critical skills they will value in later life.

There are numerous scientific studies that support the value of music education for children. An article in Forbes magazine, for example, summarized the results of a psychological study on the effect of musical training on kids as published in the Canadian journal Psychological Science.  Six-year-old children were broken into three groups. One group were given music lessons, another group received drama lessons, and the third group were assigned to study hall. One year later all the kids were given an IQ test. Children in the music groups had slightly larger increases in IQ than the control groups, averaging seven-point gains in their IQ scores than the previous year, or 2.7 points higher than children placed in either the drama or study hall groups.

Because music lessons are an excellent antidote for the Internet-numbing effects on our young children’s brains, I encourage parents to counteract this trend and include music lessons of any kind in their children’s broad array of activities.