Do you ever feel ambushed moving through the technological minefield of the 21st century? For example, you open your computer to check your work email, and in another tab a Facebook message pops up from an old friend who you haven’t heard from in awhile. You send a quick hello in response. On your way back to your work email, you glance through your personal email and are reminded of a baby shower this weekend, and that sends you digging for one of those online-only Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupons. Oh, and then your phone starts buzzing – is it a reminder from your Fitbit, a notification from your child’s daycare, or simply a text? Wait. What were you doing in the first place?
The information jungle can be overwhelming, distracting … and sometimes, downright discombobulating. Now imagine that digital world within the context of a child’s mind, which is learning to navigate the physical world through language, facial cues, reading, motor skills, attention, and memory.
"We're missing the real danger, that human memory is not the same as the memory in a computer: it's through remembering that we make connections with what we know, what we feel, and this gives rise to personal knowledge,” says Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. “If we're not forming rich connections in our own minds, we're not creating knowledge. Science tells us memory consolidation involves attentiveness: it's in this process that you form these connections."
Here we face the uncomfortable fact that there are tradeoffs to our digital world. On the one hand, adapting to screens and digital technology within our ever-evolving society can be important to success within our evolving society. On the other hand, more and more studies show that devices and access to boundless connectivity come with negative side effects for our kiddos: lagging social-emotional development, poor memory, inability to focus, and mental health issues.
Setting aside the fear, let’s look at a few ways to support their development in the face of tech overload.
- The “R” Word
You guessed it! Reading. Reading an old-fashioned, paper-and-glue book has benefits beyond learning grammar and sentence construction. In fact, reading a real book versus on a screen helps you to remember more and better internalize information. According to Carr, reading online creates fewer connections between memories and information. One explanation for why we absorb less is that there are more distractions on the web. All those hyperlinks, advertisements, and tempting tabs mean that we’re less focused. Even reading on Kindles and other similar devices significantly reduces the amount of detail we are able to enjoy. Research from Norwegian psychologist Dr. Anne Mangen shows that book reading delivers a different, richer experience. “You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual,” she told The Guardian. “[The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”
Encouraging and modeling reading of real books will go a long way in helping your kids become more focused, better learners.
- Face Time
The most obvious antidote to technology brain drain is simply getting away from it. A healthy balance of screen time and real-world time is important, especially for young children developing language and social skills. A study by UCLA scientists demonstrated that preteens who spent only five days at a nature camp without any digital technology drastically improved their ability to read non-verbal emotional cues, and they were better able to react to emotional cues both in real life and digitally.
For kids three and younger, excessive screen time can affect speech development. Scientists found that for every 30 minutes of device time, toddlers experienced a 50 percent increased risk of delay in expressive speech.
The bottom line is that thoughtful curation of kids’ screen time can have major benefits for their social and language development.
- Practice Focus
Okay, let’s face it. The digital age is here. We will teach our kids (and most likely learn from them, too) about ever-evolving technology. We should master it and let it enhance, rather than drain, our lives.
The big theme in many studies on the topic shows that we humans lose when we fall prey to the endless distractions available on our devices.
A fascinating study from The University of Texas in Austin revealed that simply being in the same room as their smartphones, college students scored much lower on a high-concentration test than those who left their phones in a different part of the building. Meaning, phones are basically like little beings that are always screaming for your attention. Sound familiar?
The effect of technology on our lives is real, significant, and measurable. So are the things that you can do to make sure that technology serves you, and not the other way around. There’s a million ways to practice focus, like changing your environment, using a planner, meditating, or methods like the pomodoro technique.
And when you struggle to find the balance between virtual and physical life, know you’re not alone! We’re all figuring out this 21st century thing together.