When previous generations were growing up, summer days were spent playing tag outside with the neighbor kids or conjuring up elaborate imaginative stories. Today, kids sit on the couch all day, staring and tapping at a screen, often to their personal detriment. If someone saw a car barreling towards a child, they would rush to save him, yet many kids across America are in desperate need of saving from technology addiction. While this is simply the new normal for many people, do we really think this radical change is beneficial for children, and if not, how exactly is an overuse of technology harming them? Almost like a beneficial drug that America has now overdosed on and can’t get off of, our electronics have risen from helpful and semi-necessary tools to something we can’t live without.
One of the numerous consequences of children (and teens!) overdosing on technology is the way it affects a child’s attention span. In Lucy Jo Palladino’s Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers, the author shares about what she terms “voluntary attention” or what laymen call self-control. One fairly well known test on the subject is the “Marshmallow Test” by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 60’s. Children were brought into a room with a marshmallow or other treat and given two options: eat the one marshmallow now, or wait ten minutes and receive double the amount of treats. Results showed that the children who were able to abstain from eating the marshmallow had significantly greater success later in life, including response to stress, educational achievements, and more (Palladino 6-7). The kind of control practiced by the children who didn’t eat their treats is (obviously enough) called voluntary because it required effort. A task must be acted upon of the child’s own volition, rather than merely reacting to a stimuli.
The flip side of the coin is what scientists call involuntary attention. Television, phones, computers, etc. are all forms of involuntary attention; we are dependent on a screen to stay focused. This force-fed stimulation captures our attention versus having to exert effort to control it. The juxtaposition of books and the Internet serve to highlight the difference between the two types of attention. In his book The Shallows, technology writer Nicholas Carr uses the metaphor of scuba diving and jet skiing. Like scuba diving, reading a book requires deep focus on that one activity, promoting intense study and thoughtfulness. The Internet resembles jet skiing in that one skims over the information like a skier, quickly passing a plethora of information and unable to intently concentrate on any one thing for long. This is not to say technology is evil or that our involuntary impulses should be constantly restrained. Our instinctive “flight or fight” responses are involuntary in nature and help us to survive. Most of the time we are using a combination of both types of attention, for we are at our best when the two work together. However, it also goes to show that excessive use of technology in children can only increase the involuntary attention exponentially while stifling all self-discipline.
Another large and glaring problem in the face of an overuse of technology is the havoc it wreaks with a child’s social skills and relationships. One aspect of this is a reversal of child-parent roles in that it is the child who is educating the parent on technology rather than the adult teaching the child. Friendships have also changed drastically with individual phones and laptops in bedrooms allowing for less face to face time and more time on a pointless app. Technology overuse interferes with the development and sustenance of a healthy friendship, seeing as more than 60% of computer time is spent alone (Subrahmanyam, Kruat, Greenfield, and Gross). Communication has also radically changed from “ye bygone years”; many children are unaware or unable to express themselves in a rational and adult manner now that texting has largely replaced more thought-out conversation like letter writing.
So, how should our society attempt to negate the negative effects of technology on the youth of America? One pivotal solution would be awareness of both kinds of attention. When checking Facebook or Twitter, kids should think about how quickly the allure of the screen takes over from the intended task. If children are made aware of the difference in how their attention span works, they are able to distinguish between these types and halt a rampant involuntary attention. The more someone thinks about their actions, the more likely they will think about changing them (Taylor).
Additionally, negative habits in children that stem from a screen could be reduced if their parents set good examples. Yes, adults are just as guilty of technology abuse as the young. Children are always watching and copying what they see their parents or other adults doing, whether they realize it or not. If parents start with basic technology rules and limitations for their entire household, kids will learn to limit screen time by imitation of role models (Steiner-Adair and Barker 226). “Practice what you preach” as the saying goes. A child used to seeing their parents tapping on smartphones at the dinner table will be much more susceptible to an overdose of technology rather than the child whose parents keep stricter control on the electronics. This serves as a reminder that good examples go a long way.
In order to develop voluntary attention in children, one can start with a few simple steps. Ten minutes of running, or any physical exercise, has been proven to help children focus and pay attention (Palladino 72). Reading a book (one with actual paper in it!) or some quiet contemplation time encourages reflection and helps dispel the notion that stillness and thoughtfulness are unimportant. Introverts are often looked down upon in our society, when some of the greatest minds in history fell into that category, such as Plato and Aristotle.
Another strategy, rethinking, refers to reevaluating the use of screen time and how it affects our voluntary attention. Consider whether you’re intentionally checking your phone for a valid reason or merely because it’s a habit. If your kids are especially addicted to their screens, perhaps a short “technology holiday” would prove beneficial (Palladino 100). Now, obviously not all electronics or apps are necessarily harmful, but it’s good to be aware of their power and addictive qualities. There is a big difference between a toy and a tool, so some extra time to think about screen usage can’t hurt.
Another substitute for overuse of technology is turning the child’s attention elsewhere. Discover their interests: books, sports, music, dance, etc. and use that to divert them from an addiction to screen time. When reading a good book, people will often forgo technology in order to find out what will happen to their favorite character. These outlets decrease the immediate temptation of the screen and provide healthy and stimulating activities for the brain. They also can increase vocabulary and important life skills, simply by finding a different outlet than technology. It seems simple, but can have incredibly helpful effects.
While some would say that technology is the way of the future and books are becoming obsolete things from the past, proper balance is needed in all aspects of life. Relationships developed only through screens are a poor substitute for face-to-face interactions. Books encourage deep thinking in a way that most electronic reading cannot. Yes, electronics have helped our society in immense ways, but everything comes with a price. If we choose to ignore the fine print and let our technology cravings grow uncontrollably, the aftermath of this addiction will decimate our whole culture.
Childhood has drastically changed in America in the last fifty years, for better or for worse. While some uses of technology have been extremely beneficial and even life saving, overdosing on it creates negative consequences for our children that need to be evaluated. As a society, let’s cultivate imagination and intelligent thought versus mind-numbing screens we react to on an emotional level. We’d “perish the thought” of letting a child take recreational drugs, yet without proper guidelines, that is exactly what technology can become – an addiction. This is one, however, that we’ve been frighteningly blind to for years. It’s time to wake up and enter rehab.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
Palladino, Lucy Jo. Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers: A Step-by-Step Guide to Balancing Your Child’s Use of Technology. Boston: Shambhala Publication, 2015. Print.
Steiner-Adair, Catherine, and Teresa Barker. The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.
Subrahmanyam, Kaveri, Robert E. Kraut, Patricia M. Greenfield, and Elisheva F. Gross. “The Impact of Home Computer Use on Children’s Activities and Development.” The Future of Children. Princeton University, Winter 2000. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Taylor, Jim, Ph.D. “How Technology Is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 04 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2015