In my previous blog, I covered some concerns that parents have about kids’ technology use. As parents, we all want our kids to grow up to be successful. By “successful,” we ultimately mean things like happy, healthy, loved, loving, financially independent, with strong social relationships, and so on. While most parents share concerns about the dangers technology use poses to kids in areas such sexting, cyberbullying, pornography, online sexual predators, and video game violence, there is a more insidious, pervasive harm caused by technology that merits our attention. Understanding what the greatest harm of screen time is, and what can be done about it, cannot be emphasized enough.
Our Most Precious Gift
In a sense, our most precious gift that we can give or receive is our attention. As the godfather of Western psychology, Dr. William James, said, “Our experience is what we choose to attend to.” Focused attention is fundamentally necessary for us to learn and to connect with others. As parents (or as a spouse, friend), we’ve all had the experience of trying to share something important with someone who is looking at their smart phone or engaged in technology in some other way. What does that feel like? It doesn’t feel good, right? It’s a bit of a slap in the face – it gives us the message that we aren’t as important as whatever is going on in their smart phone.
We all want to feel important, that we matter. Another person’s attention gives us that message, that validation. Conversely, being ignored or passed over in favor of technology gives the opposite message – that we don’t really matter to this other person. Admittedly, we’ve all been on the other side of this equation as well – when our child, spouse, or some other person is trying to tell us something or gain our attention while are eyes are glued to our phones.
The Dangers of Diminished Attention
Diminished attention is at the root of the greatest harm of screen time. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
1. Our attention is fundamentally necessary to build social relationships. Our undivided attention helps us to connect with others, and strong social connections are essential to our happiness. Most of our happiness in life, one way or another, is tied to the quality of our social relationships.
2. Learning anything requires focused attention. The more focused we are, the more we can acquire information for understanding and later recall. The process by which our brains transfer information from working memory to long-term memory (and learning) gets disrupted when we shift the focus of our attention.
3. Multitasking is a myth. Yes, we can multitask with some activities like walking and chewing gum. But, when it comes to more complex tasks, we definitely task switch – we do not actually do two complex activities simultaneously. It is neurologically impossible to do both. For example, if your teen is working on a creative writing assignment and IMing with a couple friends, he/she is not actually writing AND chatting at the same time. He or she is toggling back and forth between the two.
4. The capacity for sustained attention might be in jeopardy. Our brains are getting so accustomed to task switching that our ability to sustain attention is being diminished.
5. The capacity for deep thinking might be in jeopardy. In order to think deeply, we must sustain attention. Thus, if we are less able to sustain our focus, then our deeper thinking will take a hit as well.
6. Our creativity might be hindered. Some research has found boredom can foster creativity . That, out of boredom, we are motivated to be creative. In recent years, with the endless ways we can immerse ourselves into our screens, we seldom just wait and allow ourselves to be bored. We quickly reach for our digital pacifiers.
7. We are less able to access the deeper brain centers that are associated with deeper levels of happiness. It takes time to access areas of the brain in order to be truly happy, in terms of joy or a deeply rooted sense of peace and contentment. Going from screen to screen all day makes it more difficult to access those areas of the brain.
Of course I am not saying that we should avoid technology altogether. There’s no turning back – the djinni cannot be put back into the bottle! Still, we need to be very mindful of the harms that screen time can cause to our attention. Our children are particularly susceptible to the Siren’s call of screen time, but we adults struggle enough as it is! Thankfully, there are a number of steps we can take, as individuals and as parents, to limit the potential harm that unbridled screen time can have. I will begin a multi-part series on that topic in my next blogs.