Getting Our Children Addicted


During the week, when I have a few moments to scan Twitter or Feedly or newsletters, I’ll save interesting things to read in Pocket. And sometimes, I’ll get a few moments on the weekend to read some of these articles (sometimes; most of the time I just end up with an endless collection of remarkable things I won’t get to read until months later).

This morning, after reading a NY Times report on the lives of teenagers in Brownsville, I happened to read a Nautilus article on the effort to build non-addictive painkillers, and I found an interesting point of connection between the two.

When you read the NY Times report on Brownsville, “On the Brink in Brownsville,” by Mosi Secret, there is a clear sense that for some teenagers in Brownsville—one of New York’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods—boredom seems a primary cause for turning to violence or crime. For example, in a moment in a local park, the highlight of the day occurs when a man beats up his former girlfriend: “The fight was the most thrilling thing to happen in a long bore of a day.”

In the article on painkillers, “Building the Perfect Painkiller” by Maia Szalavitz, there is a statement, generalized from research, that stands out to me as significant when we consider the lives of our children:

Research has found repeatedly that the longer a drug lasts and the slower it is to reach the brain, the less addictive it is; a short, intense high produces more compulsive behavior.

When I read that, I thought about the general meaning of this as it could apply to education and learning, rather than drugs and highs. For example, turning our children “on” to reading—getting them “hooked” on reading—is an incredibly difficult task, as reading itself is a “high” that is slow burning. And for those of us that love to read, we know that the effort and time is well worth the investment—that in fact there is no better method for learning. But for those of us that don’t love struggling through the words and narratives to discover the deep treasures therein, we may find more intense and immediate gratification in TVs and movies, or online videos of cats, for that matter.

Toy bears playing a desktop video game. Author: Mattinbgn Source: Wikimedia Commons

And when I thought back to Mosi Secret’s report on teenagers in Brownsville, it seemed to me apparent that our society has failed these children and many children all across our nation, not simply because of the tragedy of their being raised in an unstable environment with little access to the wealth of greenery, diverse sources of food, and other benefits of living in richer areas, but furthermore because we are so busy harvesting from, capitalizing off of, and perpetuating their compulsions and addictions, rather than offering them healthy and rich sources of learning.

By Stefan B., Thyras husband (GNU Free Documentation) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
In that report on Brownsville, you’ll notice that Shamir and his friends are well-versed in the lore of fashion and consumer culture. Something’s working here, in some sense. Any distinctions made between high brow art and street life are largely fatuous at this point. These barriers have been broken. The only barrier that remains, as Shamir points out, is one of simply having the money to buy stuff: “Nobody in Brownsville is paying a thousand dollars and change for a [Hermès] belt.”

So our children have access to knowledge of all the things and stuff they want, and sometimes they’re able to acquire the latest sneaker or gaming system. But they have little access to knowledge of the things that make life so much more than a neverending series of a questing after shallow highs.

Why is this? And why is our society so adept at providing access to “stuff” that perpetuates yet more compulsive behavior, but so terrible at providing access to the knowledge and resources that make life worth living?

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