How often do you have a technology wobble with your kids, or yourself?
I fell off the proverbial screen time cliff (again) earlier this week. It happens when my kids have been in a particularly entrenched technology use cycle (hello lockdown) and I succumb to the scaremongering of the media, as I picture their jellified brains and envision their imaginary future as slaves to their screens.
But I have good news, we’re not helpless!
Despite the doom-laden predictions of the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and the numerous media articles consigning us to a life enslaved to our devices, we are more capable of managing our technology usage than we have been led to believe.
Mo Gawdat chatted to author Nir Eyal on his podcast this week, and it turns out we can become ‘indestractable.’
Just hearing this makes me feel empowered, and I want to highlight a common thread that runs through much of the personal development content I consume: the power of words, belief and mindset.
If we are told that something is immutable, we develop a fixed mindset, believing there’s nothing we can do to change it. If we believe in our power to change something, or do something, then this can help us to succeed.
Dr Tommy Wood highlighted the treadmill test in a podcast with Dr Chatterjee: participants aerobic activity was measured whilst running on a treadmill. Some had been told they had a gene predisposed to good performance, others that they had one predisposed to bad performance.
Whilst the information about the genes was untrue, those who’d been told they had the negative performance gene did worse on the test. This demonstrates the power of words and belief in a mind-boggling way, and in particular, the problems associated with negative language and perspectives.
Unfortunately for us, so much of what we hear and see in the media is focused on the negative.
With our own negativity bias to contend with, it’s a wonder we get anything done.
Telling us we’re powerless to change our technology habits because technology is too addictive actually robs us of the kind of flexible mindset we need to make changes.
It puts us squarely into the ‘f*ck it mentality:’ if I can’t do anything about it, why bother?
There are all sorts of steps we can easily take, if only we believe in our power to do so. We can turn off notifications, put our phone in do-not-disturb mode, make scheduled times to check our phone instead of checking on impulse, or even (I’ll blow your mind with this one), turn it off!
We’re so busy focusing on the negative impacts of technology, but what about the benefits?
What about the connection it provided us during lockdowns, the ability to work from anywhere, the benefits of the internet for inspiration, learning, shopping? The apps that motivate us to meditate, run and look after our health? What if it can be used for good instead of evil? What if it’s up to us to decide? According to Nir Eyal, it’s within our power to make technology work for us.
There are so many benefits to technology, but I do believe our brains can benefit from a little space each day, not just from technology, but from everything. A few minutes a day (ten to twenty if I can get it) of meditation or stillness does wonders for my inner calm.
This is something we’re working on in my family. But I also need to give us a little grace whilst doing so. Presently, we’re living in a dusty, often noisy, rubble and tool strewn house.
Add a winter lockdown from which we’re just emerging, and it’s no wonder my children have been driven to distracting themselves. My daughter has taken refuge in Friends and the Marvel movies. My son is diving deep into Pokémon.
I can get so caught up in the danger of absolutes, as I march around the house booming oft repeated but seldom enforced decrees that ‘from this day forth, there will be no technology,’ that I forget about the long game of life. I’ve watched my children enough to know they have cycles. There are periods where they want to flop in front of a screen and periods where other things pique their interest.
I won’t deny that some of their screen use seems to have become habitual. I’m working on disrupting their use of screens as soon they get home from school. They’ve fallen into a pattern with this and weren’t really engaging in other activities. The weather has been kind, so we’ve been outside playing (with some encouragement) and they know they can have their screens after dinner.
There’s a lot of information in the media about the negative impact of screen time before bed. I’m discovering that many best practices we read about have to be applied to our own circumstances. My children don’t seem overstimulated by the use of screens in the evening, so I’m happy for them to use them until about half an hour before bedtime. If this changes, we can review it.
We also try to keep devices charging overnight at a ‘central charging station’ (aka the spare bedroom) to remove the temptation to jump on them in the morning (morning doom scrolling has never really been a problem for me, but I leave my phone charging there too, just to ease the perceived injustice of it all).
The intention here is to help my children develop better awareness and habits around their use. It’s a fine line, and I’m trying to keep boundaries flexible so as not to make their devices forbidden fruit.
I know how I react when I tell myself I can’t have something, it’s all I think about! It’s something we’re working on gently together, rediscovering other interests and disrupting the habit of having their screens on in the background all the time. It’s only been a week and already we’re making progress.
I think my problem with my children’s screen time is often a problem with my own perspective. It’s easy to label it as pointless, especially if they’re watching something that irritates me or doesn’t look worthy of learning (I doubt I’d be complaining if they were watching endless videos about maths or fine art), but as my son keeps telling me, he’s learning a lot from watching Pokémon.
It’s easy to think he’s ‘sat there doing nothing,’ and for a couple of weeks this seemed true. But as his fascination deepened, he started drawing Pokémon. He made lists of the names and characteristics of new Pokémon he discovered (which for a reluctant reader and writer astounded me). He drew out and labelled Pokémon for his friends and made up stories. He created an alphabetical flow chart of his favourite Pokémon and how they evolve and tells me he knows a way to recategorize his Pokémon handbook in a more intuitive format.
He’s taken something he’s really interested in and thrown himself into it, developing his literacy, problem solving, research skills, creativity and critical thinking. All this stemmed from watching Pokemon on his ipad.
Whilst Friends or Marvel movies are often running in the background of my daughter’s life, she spends a lot of her time making video edits, kind of like the digital equivalent of stop motion. There are characters, plot lines, speech bubbles and music overlay. She figured all of this out on her own. Her obsession with watching Friends and Marvel is the fuel for her creative fire.
This makes a lot of sense when I think about what happens when I get interested in something. I read all the books, watch all the programmes, listen to all the podcasts: in short, it consumes me for as long as I’m interested in it, and I learn from that consumption.
It turns out that panics over emerging technology are nothing new. Socrates thought that writing would lead to forgetfulness. When trains were invented, there was a fear that traveling at 30mph could be fatal to the human body. There were fears that the radio and later television would corrupt society and a Swiss scientist raised concerns over information overload, following the invention of the printing press in the 16th Century.
We can always find something to worry about, particularly when it comes to the new and unknown, in fact we’re genetically predisposed to it (or maybe this is another form of negativity that needs challenging).
This may sound a bit woo-woo, but I also believe that my children instinctively know what they need to master in order to grow. Technology will be present throughout their lives. They not only need to learn how to use it, they also need to find balance.
As in so many areas of even our adult lives, this is best done through experiential learning and awareness: by taking the time to notice what feels good and what doesn’t, rather than imposing strict restrictions, which increase the risk of bingeing on the forbidden fruit (cake) at every opportunity.
It’s my Springtime resolution to be less reactive about the technology use in our home. This will be an ongoing process. As I’m discovering with so many things, there’s no one right way and needs will inevitably change over time.
The next time I have a wobble, I will try to keep my end goal in mind: to raise my children to be technology literate, with the ability to manage their own usage.
There will likely always be periods in their lives when they’re using screens or [insert chosen vice here] too much. The keys which I seek to hand them, are the awareness to recognise when this is happening and the skills to do something about it. Power to the people (even the little ones).
Mo Gawdat 2021 Nir Eyal – Become Indistractable in Four Science-Backed Steps Episode 109 17/4/21 [Slo Mo Podcast] https://podcasts.apple.com
Dr Chatterjee 2021 The Truth About Fitness and Brain Health with Dr Tommy Wood Episode 167 24/03/21 [Feel Better Live More Podcast] https://podcasts.apple.com
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