Monday, June 7, 2010

This is Our Family... High on Computers

In today’s New York Times, there’s a multi-page article about how computers may be changing the way our brains work, affecting our attention and diminishing our—and our children’s—ability to interact with each other. Here’s the link:
Your Brain on Computers - Attached to Technology and Paying a Price -
While I don’t think any members of my family have quite risen to the “Netaddiction” level of usage, the article brought to mind several anecdotes of the pervasiveness of technology in our modern lives.
The first comes from Lil Bit’s preschool days. When she was 3, we had a conference with her pre-school teacher. We were expecting to be told about her progress with numbers, colors and letters—and we were. But we were also given this feedback: “Lil Bit lags behind the other children in her facility with the computer systems. She needs more help getting into and using computer programs.”
This was presented as a difficulty, not as a virtue. It has since been corrected. Being able to use technology is an expectation—even for preschoolers—in the modern world. In a way, it makes sense: their reality will be dominated by it. To be computer illiterate would be a handicap for her. But I’m disappointed by what I’ve seen of the “learning games” for kids her age. I often think that Lil Bit would be reading more words by now if there was less computer time at pre-K and more time spent one on one with her teachers. But I’ve also noticed how bored she seems with the simple, old-fashioned reading methods we use at home. You know, old school, stationary stuff like flashcards and books. Lil Bit’s attitude seems to be “if doesn’t have sound and animation, color me uninterested.” It’s hard to teach a child whose used to higher levels of visual stimulation than static words on a page.
The second was a recent evening when the family was gathered around the television screen for family movie night. It was intended as a family bonding activity—but no one was watching the movie. No, that’s not right. It would be more accurate to say that no one was JUST watching the movie. Kevin was on his “crack Berry”, I was on my netbook, Sisi was on her laptop, and Sommer had her portable DVD player in her lap watching another show. We were each multi-tasking: watching the movie while conducting another activity. Sure, we were all sitting together, but each of us was in his/her own little world.
Such is the impact of technology on family time.
In moderation, computers, smartphones and players of all types don’t seem to do much harm—and I confess, I’m as guilty of using them as “babysitters” as the next parent. Just this weekend, I handed Lil Bit my smartphone to stop her from climbing over the empty seats in the restaurant. A game on it distracted her until the food arrived—and probably saved me some exacting embarrassing discipline. Wrong? I don’t know.
What I do know is that, on the evenings when the TV isn’t on, and the phones and computers are put away, we interact with each other differently. There’s less impatience, more talking, more listening. At the same time, what we talk about in those device-less minutes, is often information learned while our devices are on. Kevin might share a story from The Drudge Report or a comment he read on (yes, he reads—I’ll tell you about that in another blog!) I might update everyone on a Facebook post by a relative or family friend or an interesting tidbit from the Post or the Times. Sisi will share an invitation sent by a friend via IM. The wealth of information available to us about the world in which we live through our devices is astounding. I don’t know how I lived before I could Google any question that pops into my mind—and usually find a satisfactory answer. Not infrequently, Kevin or I will use a word Sisi doesn’t know at the dinner table. Instead of defining it for her, it’s pretty cool to be able to tell her to “look it up on her phone”—which she can do faster than I could find our hardbound dictionary—and keep talking without the interruption of leaving the table. For her the ultimate punishment is to lose her phone and computer. She feels genuinely sorry for the kids in her universe who don’t yet have phones of their own.
While Kevin and Lil Bit enjoy some their computer time, Sisi and I are the ones who really have to watch our screen consumption. Sisi can lose herself in games and Skype with her friends for hours at a time. Although I have a cupboard full of cookbooks, I cook with my Netbook on the kitchen counter, looking up and following recipes online. I barely leave home without a hook-up of some kind. And I’m the one who had to buy pricey Internet access on a family vacation in the Mediterranean. Being disconnected for 14 days was driving me crazy. I wish I could say that there was actually something important in my email those 14 days, but there wasn’t. I just needed my “fix:” the rush of dopamine that experts compare to addictions to food and sex. Apparently, I fit the profile for the Internet-obsessed: I’m in my mid-40s, well-educated and reasonable affluent. Great—one more thing to add to my plate of worries.
Obviously, technology is just one more thing families have to balance. More terrifying is the idea that technology may actually be making us more superficial, less knowledgeable, less empathetic people.

That’s the premise of Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr posits that the Internet is demolishing our—and our children’s-- capacity to concentrate. Because concentration is necessary for any serious endeavor-- creative or scientific and everything in between—loss of that ability will have far-reaching effects. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my list—and it should probably be on every parents list.

I hope the book also addresses the technology gap. Poorer people, many of them of color, often have less access to the Internet. This is usually seen as a problem because of the immense amount of information that now often only available in digital form. But if these same access is also creating limits in our abilities to concentrate and create what does that portend for those with less access? Does it widen the gap between those who have and those who don't... or shrink it?

Technology makes for interesting questions. I just hope that when the time comes, Sisi and Lil bit will find me a fully-wired nursing home. I'll write a blog about it, I promise.

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