Way Too Much of a Good Thing

Anyone who’s been reading my blog knows that I’m a big proponent of getting kids “unplugged.”  I love that they get two weeks of tech free time to focus on face-to-face relationships while they’re at camp.   Unfortunately, I think many of them fall back into their same tech habits, and those of their parents, when they return home.    Now I want to figure out how all of us — adults and kids — can learn how to use our technology optimally.  How can we have our technology use contribute positively to our lives and not let it continue sucking our minutes, hours, and days from the people we love?

Have you  watched what happens at the end of the school day?   Regardless of their age,  kids get released from class and immediately pull out their electronic devices.   Many immediately start texting.   As the kids pour out of my children’s elementary school, many of them pull out iPads and smart phones, fire them up, and start staring at their screens.  Others stick in their head phones, avoiding interaction with the outside world.

Where are these kids getting this alarming focus on their tech gadgets?  From us.  That’s right.  As with all the other habits we pass on to our kids, I believe we are passing along a technology addiction of epic proportions to our children.   And I think researchers have only scratched the surface of the negative impact our out-of-control technology use is having on all of us.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how my technology use has impacted my life.  In many ways, my life has improved due to new technology.  I have more flexibility to work from home and on my own schedule, since emails have replaced the many phone calls and messages from yesteryear.  I have reconnected with long-lost childhood friends through Facebook.  I can relax with a nice game of Words with Friends on the couch.   I can Facetime with my daughter at college.  I can email my mom and dad some recent photos of their grandkids.  I can create gift calendars and photo books on Shutterfly.   I can see how my friends have rated a particular book on Goodreads before I purchase it.   And I can read articles on topics that interest me.  I love all this information at my fingertips!

However, I think my technology use has a dark side, a negative impact that I’m feeling more and more lately.   I suspect others feel the same way, and research has shown that, in fact, our technology use does have a negative impact — on our sleep, on our relationships, on our mental health, and even on the education college students are getting.    I often plan to “just quickly check my emails” after I get my kids to bed, only to still be at my computer two hours later.  I read less.  I take longer to get through my “to do” list because I get easily side-tracked by something to look at or read online.    I watch TV less.  On the surface, that sounds like a good thing, but I have fond memories of laughing at Seinfeld episodes with my husband in our early married years.  Watching TV together  is now a rare occurrence.   In fact, pretty much the only TV viewing I do is while folding laundry.  We both spend a lot of our evenings trying to keep up with a relentless flood of email communication.

According to my nine and eleven year olds, “all” the kids at their school have smart phones.   I know some parents think it’s great for kids to learn to use technology at an early age, but I don’t think third graders are ready for smart phones.   If adults are having this much trouble trying to balance our tech use, how can we expect young children to figure it out?   I think we’re on the strict side in our family, but our boys are allowed 30 minutes on their computer each day (it’s set up so it logs them out).  We allow TV and iPods on the weekend only.  For now, it’s working for us.  Our older kids make their own rules and have proven to be responsible about not over-using their electronics.  They’re better at it than I am.

For myself, I’m making some new rules and am hopeful that this structure will help me get my tech-use to an optimal level:

(1)  At night, plug my phone in and charge it far from where I sleep.

(2)  Check emails no more than three times per day.

(3)  Make Sundays an email and Facebook-free day.

(4)  Check emails on my computer, not my phone, unless there’s something I’m waiting on specifically and need to get to before I’m by my computer.

(5)  No computer use between 5:00-8:30 pm unless I’m doing something related to my kids’ homework.

(6)  Turn off my computer by 10pm nightly.

My hope is that by establishing some new habits of my own that model technology-use moderation, my kids will learn good tech habits, too.

I’ve been reading a lot on this topic (as you’ll see from the list of articles below).   If you don’t have time to click on all the links, I’ve put a quote from each.    If you come across more articles or books on the topic of tech use,  please forward them to me!   I’d really love to hear your thoughts on how you’re balancing your family’s tech use (yours and your kids)!  What rules do you have for your kids?  What about for yourself?  Comment here or send me an email.

Articles on Impact of Technology Use

How your Cell Phone Hurts Your Relationships, By Helen Lee Lin, Scientific American (September 4, 2012) Amazingly, they found that simply having a phone nearby, without even checking it, can be detrimental to our attempts at interpersonal connection.

Can College Students Resist the Lure of Facebook and Twitter during Class? By Barbara J. King, NPR (August 16, 2012) As a culture, we have to fight the seductive appeal of constant connection via our technology, which fragments our attention and interrupts the joy of full immersion in thinking, problem-solving, and questioning.

The Flight from Conversation, By Sherry Turkle, NY Times (April 21, 2012) We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be.

Death of Conversation, By Simon Jenkins, The Guardian (April 26, 2012) Psychologists have identified this as “fear of conversation”. People wear headphones as “conversational avoidance devices”. The internet connects us to the entire world, but it is a world bespoke, edited, deleted, sanitised.

Heavy Technology Use Linked to Fatigue, Stress, and Depression in Young Adults, By David Volpi, Huffington Post (8/2/2012) “I tend to think that the relationship between technology and stress, sleep disorders and depression has more to do with the overuse of technology in our society, especially among young people. If you’re a parent like I am, than you know firsthand how difficult it can be to get children to turn off the computer or put down their phone and stop texting so you can, just maybe, have a real conversation.”

Is Facebook Stunting Your Child’s Growth?  By Clifford Nass, Pacific Standard (May/June, 2012) “Tween girls who are heavy users of online social interaction feel less normal (as measured by their agreement or disagreement with statements like “I often feel rejected by people my age”) than girls who use online social media less frequently.”

How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Technology By Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience (2008) “Technology can become more than a passing problem and more like an addiction,” he told LiveScience. He listed some danger signs: “You become irritable when you can’t use it. The Internet goes down and you lose your mind. You start to hide your use.

Why We’re all Addicted to Texts and Twitter, By Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D., Psychology Today (9/11/2012)”Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in your inbox? Do you think that if you could ignore your incoming email or messages you might actually be able to get something done at work? You are right!”

Have Smartphones Killed Boredom (and is that good)? By Doug Gross, CNN (September 26, 2012)
…by filling almost every second of down time by peering at our phones we are missing out on the creative and potentially rewarding ways we’ve dealt with boredom in days past.

Your Brain on Computers, a New York Times series: Articles in this series (listed below) examine how a deluge of data can affect the way people think and behave.

•  Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction By Matt Richtel The constant stream of stimuli offered by new technology poses a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

•  Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime By MATT RICHTEL Time without digital input can allow people to learn better or come up with new ideas.

•  Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain By MATT RICHTEL Five scientists spent a week in the wilderness to understand how heavy use of technology changes how we think and behave.

•  The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In By JULIE SCELFO Parents’ use of smartphones and laptops — and its effect on their children — is becoming a source of concern to researchers.

•  Attached to Technology and Paying a Price By MATT RICHTEL Scientists say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information from e-mail and other interruptions.

•  An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness By TARA PARKER-POPE “We’re paying a price in terms of our cognitive life because of this virtual lifestyle,” one expert says.

•  More Americans Sense a Downside to an Always Plugged-In Existence By MARJORIE CONNELLY Polls show that a number of Americans, particularly younger ones, are feeling negative effects from heavy computer and smartphone use.

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