WIRED from birth: Gifted Children and Technology

WIRED from birth: Gifted Children and Technology

by Jill Williford Wurman, Director of Research & Development, The Grayson School



Our children, gifted or not, are often described as the first truly “digital generation” in news stories, magazines, and blogs — and while that is true, it’s a term we use very casually. What does it mean, truly, to be growing up in today’s world, where technology is woven into the fabric of every day in ways we never could have even imagined in our own childhoods? The creators of these technologies are mostly from our own generation, of course, so we are the first to encounter and use them — but our children are genuinely growing up in a world that is markedly different from our own in a paradigm-shifting sort of way, in the same way that children who grew up after the widespread adoption of electricity were very different from the parents who ushered in that new era.


In some ways, the pervasive use of technology in our lives is a tremendous blessing, of course, but it is also fraught with uncertainty for parents. We worry about social media, digital predators, access to adult material, digital footprints, cyberbullying… and truthfully, we worry about falling so far behind our children that we can neither manage nor even understand what they are doing with their computers. (Frankly, that is an eventuality rather than a possibility, and we would be wise to prepare for that moment rather than trying to stave it off; even parents who work in the tech industry find it impossible to keep up with advancements and changes and the ever-changing fads and trends in technology…so there’s not much hope for the rest of us!)


It would be similarly ridiculous to presume that we can address everything about technology use in one article, of course. However, there are a few subtopics about which there is either very recent research or a substantial body of research, and this article aims to share some of that information in hopes that knowing something is better than knowing nothing, and that you will feel (slightly) better-equipped to understand the way your children interact with technology and to help them see it as a tool that they can control and wield effectively rather than an ocean in which they might drown.

Research on the Gifted Brain and Violent Media[1]

Parents are understandably and quite correctly concerned about what media their children consume; even though admittedly the television can provide a welcome and much-needed respite for parents, what kind of screen time is good for children and what kind is detrimental? A large and growing body of research has been devoted to exploring these questions, with a special interest in the effects of viewing violence on television or online. Violent media impairs learning — there is significant research showing that adults’ learning of foreign languages being substantially lowered, for example, as well as memory of advertisements — and also impairs school performance. Researchers wanted to know if being gifted made a difference to a student’s vulnerability to the effects of violent media — in other words, did it have a protective effect, no effect, or did it increase these effects?


Gifted Child Quarterly published a study at the end of 2016 which addressed this question, and it revealed quite dramatic findings. Researchers evaluated 154[2] 10-year-old children — half gifted, half nongifted — after showing them a 12-minute cartoon video that was either considered “nonviolent” (an episode of “Arthur”) or “violent” (an episode of “Bakugan”). The students were given a verbal test before the videos and again afterwards to see if there was a difference in student performance due to the media they watched.


First, student reactions and opinions about the videos differed greatly: gifted children liked the nonviolent “Arthur” video a little more than the non-gifted children did (approx. +10%). Additionally, the gifted children rated the “Bakugan” violent video as almost 25% more violent than the non-gifted children did, and they also said they disliked it over 54% more than their non-gifted peers did. It seems that, even before we even address any cognitive impact, gifted children have a more “outsized” reaction to violence in video material than their non-gifted peers.[3]


The results regarding cognitive effects of the videos were arresting, however. As expected, the gifted students outperformed their non-gifted peers on a verbal task before watching the video — in this case, their scores were 18% higher than the non-gifted students on the initial task. Then the children watched the video, and were retested on a similar verbal task immediately thereafter. While all the children’s verbal productivity was substantially lower after the violent video than it was following the nonviolent one, the effect on the gifted children was far more substantial. After watching the violent video, the gifted students’ advantage disappeared — there was even a small negative effect because their scores were now 13% lower than those of the non-gifted students, a swing of -31 percentage points…just from a 12-minute video.


They didn’t really look “gifted” anymore.


The violent cartoon had changed their verbal task performance to the degree that it essentially “erased” expression of their verbal giftedness, though only temporarily.[4] Importantly, too, the non-gifted children’s performance differed significantly — those who watched the violent video had a significantly worse performance than those who watched the nonviolent one (-44% difference).




The reasons stem from the very same neurological wiring that allowed our species to evolve in the first place — our brains are wired to pay attention to violence. While that may sound strange, it has a very practical application: your “caveman” instinct is to notice violence and pay attention to it as a form of self-defense. As a result of this highly adaptive and useful adaptation, we pay more attention to violence than we might like, an impulse which is actually not truly under our control.


The connection to gifted children is that they are naturally more sensitive to input of all kinds — sensory, intellectual, etc. — and have a lower “arousal threshold,” meaning that their brains notice smaller details that may escape the notice of non-gifted peers. Therefore, gifted children’s brains are triggered to pay attention to violence in media earlier and longer than nongifted children’s brains are: their neurological response is “louder” than in nongifted children. Additionally, their heightened emotional sensitivity results in their having an extended reaction to the media even after it is over. All of these small neurological differences add up to their brains using a lot more of their attention and working memory to monitor the violence onscreen and to manage their emotional response to it — working memory that would usually be used for other tasks. As a result, the violent video had a much longer-lasting and more pronounced effect on them than on the non-gifted children.[5]


What does this mean for you and your child? Well, it’s already difficult for most people to truly adhere to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP’s) original guidelines regarding media. While the AAP once recommended that children 2 and under spend NO time in front of screens each day and children 3 and older be limited to 2 hours, they released a more nuanced set of recommendations in 2015 to reflect the degree to which our culture is saturated in screens of all kinds. Now, AAP offers more general advice — that parents be actively involved in their children’s media choices and consumption of media and work with them to set boundaries and expectations about the amount of time they spend with screens. While these may seem like vague guidelines, a discussion about media with your children is a great opportunity to convey your family’s values and to share metacognitive insights about what watching videos does to your brain.



Computer use in the classroom: distractions and detriments[6]


From the “Unsurprising News” file, research shows (and you already knew) that laptop use in classrooms invites “multitasking,” a term which is frankly a euphemism for “messing around and not paying attention.” The most generous interpretation of the word implies that one is flipping back and forth from detailed note-taking to the internet to pull up related research articles, definitions, maps, and the like. That is hardly the case, though, if we are honest about what “multitasking” usually means.


In fact, 42% of college students admit that they multitask on non-academic tasks during classes (using Facebook, texting or IMing with friends, etc.). Equally unsurprising, I’m sure, is that multitasking on a laptop during class diminishes your ability to recall the information presented to you.


Unfortunately, just like everyone thinks they are a “better than average” driver, we also seem to think the same of our ability to multitask — and, just like that self-perception about driving, that perspective is far from true.


First, we know from a large body of research that multitasking lowers performance on both tasks you’re splitting your attention to do. The blame mostly lies in the fact that switching your attention from Task A to Task B requires extra time because one must cognitively “settle in” to B for a bit before truly becoming efficient at it. Then, switching back to A undoes all that acclimation and makes you take time to “resettle” again — a cycle which repeats (and wastes time) every time you switch between A and B. Only if one of the tasks is truly mindless, like checking off boxes to delete things, is multitasking actually a beneficial strategy.


But how much of a difference does a laptop make in that equation? And if there is a difference, does it matter if the task is difficult and requires complex thinking (i.e., application of new knowledge) or if it’s simple fact retrieval? And what if you are not the one multitasking, but someone else in full view is, and you can see their computer screen while you are actively monotasking and trying to learn the material?


Research has found that scores go down an average of 11% if students multitask on non-academic tasks — more so on complex questions than fact-retrieval questions (unsurprisingly). Unfortunately, 11% doesn’t sound like very much to a child’s ears — until you explain even a student who starts with perfect recall then multitasks, that student goes from an A+ to a B+ even before they cannot remember tiny little details. It’s amazing to see the look on a child’s face when they see the math spelled out that way and realize very concretely what the concrete effects of multitasking (okay, “goofing off”) on a laptop can do to their performance on assessments.


Researchers also wondered if seeing other people multitask while you are actually trying to pay attention makes a measurable difference in your performance. When they placed students in a row behind two peers multitasking on laptops during class, they found that the viewer’s scores go down 17% — compared to the multitasker’s 11% drop! That’s more than 50% more harm to a viewer’s learning than to the person actually doing the goofing off![7]


The most interesting finding may be that students seem utterly unaware of the degree to which their learning is impacted by multitasking. Students estimate that their own multitasking may “somewhat hinder” their learning, and assert that their peers’ learning will be “barely hindered” by being able to see them multitasking. The students who sat behind multitaskers at play reported that while the view was “somewhat distracting,” it “barely hindered” their learning.


Students are clearly not in touch with the indirect consequences to their peers of their behavior choices with technology. The researchers suggest that teachers explicitly spell out these findings to their students to instill in them some sense responsibility for the classroom environment they are creating for others when they drift off-task in class — another metacognitive moment in the making.



Writing versus typing[8]


If you tell your children that they would be better off using a pen and paper to take notes in class, they will likely roll their eyes at you and protest, “But EVERYONE uses laptops to take notes in class. We use computers for EVERYTHING! That’s ridiculous.” And while it is perhaps unsurprising that your child would immediately dismiss your idea as the last gasp of a pre-digital era, I have excellent news for you: YOU ARE RIGHT.


How do we know?


Literally hundreds and hundreds of studies have been done about note-taking strategies and which ones are effective for which disciplines and why. But until recently, there had been little to no research regarding the efficacy of longhand note-taking versus notes taken on laptop computers. And high schools across the nation, in an effort to prepare students for their college educational environments, are adopting similar levels of laptop use. Despite the proliferation of laptops in classrooms — which have virtually replaced paper and pen in college classrooms — there was not until recently any experimental data collected to support the idea that “old-fashioned” pen-and-paper notes were superior to typed notes. Indeed, schools often encourage students to use electronic means of recording notes and their class- and/or homework because these methods offer allow for increased organization and less chance of losing (or forgetting to turn in) their work.


Two professors, Pam Mueller at Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA, decided to investigate this question — which method of note-taking was superior? — with a new study that used experimental parameters to get truly “clean” data. They ran a series of 3 experiments designed to elucidate the differences between laptop and longhand note-taking.


In the first study, they simply asked students to take notes on a 15-minute TED talk (on an obscure but interesting topic) either on a laptop computer or by writing longhand on paper. After the video presentation was over, they were tested on what they had seen with two kinds of questions: factual (e.g., “approximately how many years ago did the Indus Valley civilization exist?”) and conceptual (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”).[9] Mueller & Oppenheimer evaluated students’ notes and made two interesting discoveries:


  • Laptop users wrote 178% as many words as the longhand note-takers.


  • Laptop users included 2/3 more phrases transcribed verbatim than hand-writers.


What’s interesting about those two data points is that the closer the notes were to verbatim — and the higher the word count of the notes — the lower the student’s score on the conceptual portion of the test.   This is truly a case of “less is more”: the students who took longhand notes outscored those who took notes on laptops — and they significantly outscored them on conceptual questions than the laptop users. The results were quite clear: hand-writing notes is a distinct and quite significant advantage over taking them on a laptop.


In Study 2, the researchers tried to discern if the verbatim quality of the notes was truly what was causing the trouble in Study 1 — what if they specifically instructed students NOT to take verbatim notes? Would the difference go away? They repeated the study, but some of the participants using laptops were given an extra instruction:


“People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.”[10]


Despite this direction, these laptop users seemed unable to control themselves, and transcribed away, willy-nilly: their verbatim overlap was 12.07%, while the laptop users who got no such instruction had a hardly different rate of 12.11%. The longhand note-takers, with a measly 6.9% verbatim overlap, handily outscored both groups of laptop note-takers — this time, on both the factual and the conceptual questions.


Study 3 was designed to see if the apparently stubbornly verbatim nature of laptop notes would mean better performance over time if the student had a chance to review the notes before a test. After all, having more words to review — and words that had come straight from the professor — would surely enhance recall, wouldn’t it? Surprisingly, that wasn’t the case, either:


  • For all students, the more notes they took, the better they did.
  • Verbatim overlap (transcribing the lecture) was not helpful to students if they chose not to study their notes.
  • Verbatim overlap was detrimental to students who did choose to study their notes.
  • Longhand note-takers outscored laptop note-takers — this time, they even beat the pants off the laptop users in factual questions by a wider margin.


So here’s what you tell your kids: you’re right (you’re welcome). They should hand-write class notes rather than taking notes on a laptop. They’ll thank you for it — but probably not for a good long while.



Jill Williford Wurman is the Director of Research and Development at The Grayson School in Broomall, PA. Click to download a full list of references and additional resources consulted for this article. You can reach Jill with any comments or questions via email at Research@TheGraysonSchool.org.

[1] Çetin, Y. Wai, J., Altay, C., Bushman, B. J. (2016). Effects of violent media on verbal task performance in gifted and general cohort children. Gifted Child Quarterly 60 (4), pp. 279-286. Retrieved online December 2016.

[2] Note: this sample size is pretty significant for a gifted study; generally, of course, because the gifted are by definition rare in the population, the research studies available often report results achieved with populations of 20 or 50 students. 154 is actually pretty big!

[3] The study also controlled for the amount of video students watched at home, in case there was a “familiarity” effect that impacted the results one way or another. While gifted students watched about 20% more nonviolent video than non-gifted students at home, they watched substantially less video that they considered “violent” (39% less) than their non-gifted peers. Regardless, the results were controlled for this difference, and the cognitive effects were found to not be impacted significantly by differences in how much video of either kind watched at home.

[4] How long does this “disappearing giftedness” effect last? The research study did not explore the threshold for the effect, so we’re not sure. Is it permanent? No, of course not. But it lasts long enough that we should remember to keep our kids from watching violent videos before they are supposed to sit down and do homework of any kind!

[5] Caveat: I first pulled and printed this article via a university library back in December 2016, and when I looked it up again online the day before the February 2017 GPA meeting, a very strange thing had happened. It seems that a college professor had a question about the data presented and he called the journal and asked if he could see the raw data from the study. When the editors of the journal contacted the corresponding author, they were told that they needed to speak with one of the two Turkish researchers in the foursome who are co-authors of the article. In an announcement now appended to the front page of the article, the journal now explains that “because of the attempted coup in Turkey,” they have been unable to contact the professor who has custody of the data. As a result, the authors agreed that they should retract the article until such time as he can be found and the question cleared up. As one of the authors is a highly-respected researcher with whose other work I am very familiar, I decided that the findings were still significant enough to share, even if the actual figures are slightly imprecise.

[6] Sana, F., Weston, T., Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education 62, pp. 24-31.

[7] The researchers on this study suggest that these results may occur because the person DOING the multitasking is choosing when to do it, while the person OBSERVING instead experiences something visually distracting happening at an inopportune moment without being able to NOT see it.

[8] Mueller, P. A., and Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science 25 (6), pp. 1159-1168.

[9] These examples are taken directly from the research study, pg. 1161.

[10] Mueller & Oppenheimer, pg. 1162.

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