Is technology reshaping your brain, your family, your life?

My post from OSV Daily Take today:

How many high-tech gadgets and gizmos have you used today — or are you using right now? Cell phone? Facebook? Twitter? Google? iPod? iPad? Kindle? Video games? DVR playback? All of the above? Maybe even all at once?

Lately I’ve been worried about my own family’s high-tech fascination, which I think is verging on obsession. To be fair, some of it is required. Both my husband, Dennis, and I have jobs that require us to be on social networking sites, Twitter and the like. But, I have to admit, that even when I’m supposed to be quickly posting a blog link or sending out a 140-character “tweet,” I have to make multiple stops along the way to see what my 297 closest Facebook friends are doing, to check email once, twice, three times, to look at some of my favorite blogs, and to instant message Dennis about dinner. And I’m the low-tech person in our house. My husband can put my high-tech savvy to shame, and even our 13-year-old son is more at home throwing together a Powerpoint presentation than a good old-fashioned book report.

Just last night, unable to sleep, I was contemplating a bold move: suggesting we unplug one day a week and leave all high-tech gadgets at home when we go on vacation. (Even if it means I cannot post to this blog.) I didn’t know if I had the nerve to suggest it. I knew I would be met with gasps and looks of stunned shock. Then I got out of bed, kept my idea to myself, resisted the urge to check email before I said good morning or poured a cup of coffee, and opened the New York Times. And there was the headline that has been spreading around the Internet like wildfire today: “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.”

The story is a lengthy look at the toll our high-tech culture is taking on family life, individual creativity and even our collective evolutionary arc. We are, it seems, rewiring our brains by the way we interact with technology, jumping from one gadget to another, skimming bits of information from here and there but never settling down for something meaty. In fact, I found it kind of ironic that the story spanned three different pages and included two sidebars. Given the proclivity of high-tech junkies to speed read and bounce from one place to another, I’m surprised the Times thought we could handle something of this length. But it is so worth the read:

“Researchers say there is an evolutionary rationale for the pressure this barrage puts on the brain. The lower-brain functions alert humans to danger, like a nearby lion, overriding goals like building a hut. In the modern world, the chime of incoming email can override the goal of writing a business plan or playing catch with the children,” the Times reports.

And the news gets worse:

“Researchers worry that constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.”

I’ve seen this in a very limited way in our own home. Our 13-year-old son has an iPod touch, mainly for music and some very basic applications. But I’ve turned around during an episode of American Idol, which we watch as a family, to find him looking at the TV, listening to his iPod while sitting in front of the family room computer waiting for his turn to view a planet on an astronomy website. Talk about overloading a young brain.

But putting a limit on some of this stuff is more difficult that you’d expect. It’s not as easy to control as TV viewing or video games because it oozes into all different parts of life. Some of it, like the limited and very basic cell phone that allows him to call me for a ride or tell me he has safely arrived somewhere, has been a huge help. As have other things. He has the music capability on the iPod so that he can use it in music lessons or listen while he waits 30 minutes for me to arrive for pick-up. That’s a good thing. He is involved in an online game that allows him to manage his own company, and it’s been interesting to watch him figure out how to improve customer service and sales in his pretend airline conglomerate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of “play” time. But he also has potentially non-stop access to mindless apps that distract him from homework, piano practice, and reading, which he once pursued with such enthusiasm that we had to set limits on his reading time and force him to do other things. Not so much anymore. And that’s a bad thing.

I’m toying with the idea of suggesting technology-free Sundays, and the only way to do that is to shut down every computer and gadget in the house on Saturday night. I think it could be transforming for our family, although Dennis and I do have the issue of sometimes needing to handle work emails or posts — even on Sundays and even though we both work for the Church. And I really like the idea of a technology-free vacation, which is a little more difficult but not impossible. (We tend to use our gadgets to look up directions to and phone numbers for museums and zoos, restaurants and beach attractions, proving that technology is not all bad.)

What are your technology issues? Does the good outweigh the bad? Do you find yourself or your family bogged down by the very technology that is supposed to free you up? Share your thoughts, tips, stories in our comment section. And to read the full New York Times story, if you can pull yourself away from Facebook and Twitter for a while, click HERE.

A promise deferred, a promise renewed

My latest Life Lines column:

Even before Chiara was born almost five years ago, I promised myself I would spend less time working and more time playing with the baby girl who graced me with her presence when I was almost 43. She was a special gift, a last chance to get this mommy-and-me work-from-home scenario just right. I announced it to Dennis. I vowed it silently. I would have lots of together time with this baby. But, as so often happens, life had other plans. Work did not slow down. I did not slow down.

Now, as Chiara finishes pre-school with kindergarten on the horizon, I find myself in a state of mourning. I want to stop time and make up for all our lost days, but I can’t. Halfway through a new book project, I am racing toward the end of the school year at breakneck speed, watching our time together disappear like water circling around a drain. Even now, as I write this column, she is beside me, watching a favorite movie while I work. We are forever on parallel paths through the day, always together apart.

Where did the days and years go? What happened to all the leisurely strolls around the nature preserve I’d planned out in my mind? Or the afternoons I had hoped would be spent snuggled up on the couch with her favorite books? I’m sure Chiara will one day look back on her young life and remember her mother’s most famous phrases: Not now. In a minute. Maybe tomorrow.

So when she had off from school one day this week, I decided to take her to a local bagel shop for lunch. She was thrilled, walking through the place like she owned it, sipping her chocolate milk and talking a mile a minute. About an hour later, when she was still nursing the same bagel, I found myself starting to twitch. My mind was racing over all the work I had due. I started to push her along, even as I wanted to ignore it all and revel in her storytelling. I realized in that moment that even when I am with Chiara, I am often not fully there. My mind is always working. I’ve become so adept at multi-tasking it seems I no longer know how to do just one thing at a time, especially if that one thing is nothing in particular.

It’s funny, but in my spiritual life I often talk about the importance of mindful eating, that through slow and purposeful eating we can turn a meal into prayer. Then when that slow and purposeful eating is staring at me with big brown eyes, I look at my watch and tap my foot. Even as I urged Chiara to eat faster, I was aware of the contradictions—and lost opportunities.

There’s no easy answer to this challenge that many moms face, but I think the key is balance, a balance we create. A day we say no to a new commitment. A week we go on vacation without the laptop. A summer when we take even one day a week just to sit at the pool with the kids.

I have three more months with Chiara—and soon the other two kids—before school starts again. I can continue at my current crazy pace, bouncing from one computer to another, so frazzled that I barely remember what I was looking for when I went into a room. Or I can move at Chiara’s speed, savoring lunch, looking at every flower in the yard, spinning and swinging and blowing bubbles every which way.

Five years ago, I made myself a promise. This summer I plan to live up to my end of the bargain. Why don’t you join me? Find that place of balance in your life, a place where work and home and spirituality all happily coexist. Then we’ll check back in the fall to see how we did.

To read previous Life Lines columns, visit my website HERE.

Friday surprise – an unexpected book review

I needed a lift today, and there it was — unexpected but right on time — waiting in my email inbox this morning. Glastonbury Abbey in Massachusetts has posted a very cool review of my Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Catholic Catechism, which is such a treat because it’s been two years since publication. Reviews at this late stage really are a gift.

Here’s what the reviewer had to say:

by Bruce McCabe

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to “The Catholic Catechism”
By Mary DeTurris Poust with Theological Advisor David J. Fulton, STD, JCD

A funny thing happened while I was reading this guide to the Catholic Catechism. I learned why pride could be considered a sin.

One thing the book has going for it is its accessibility. It’s more, dare I say it, accessible than the bible. Of course, we read the bible, if at all, for different reasons. We want reassurance. You don’t read this book for reassurance. It can provoke you.
It tackles hot-button issues like sin, celibacy, abortion euthanasia, the death penalty, adultery — no euphemisms like “cheating”— divorce, birth control, homosexuality, and other broader issues like equity in wages, the right to work, preserving the environment and even the need to banish greed and envy. Talk about tall orders.

You might think, as I do, that sin is something like beauty, i.e., in the eye of the beholder. The guide has no truck with that. It dismisses rationalizations referring to human weaknesses or character flaws and labels it flatly as “a turning away from God’s plan and an abuse of the freedom (God) gave us.”

lthough pride, I’ve decided, can be a good thing, I’ve also come to see it as being something of a double-edged sword. You can be proud of something that’s at least dubious and that to some might be considered objectionable. For example, maybe what you’re proud of is your willfulness or stubborn refusal to consider other possibilities.

The guide conveys a sense of knowing and explaining to you most if not all of what Catholics believe or are supposed to believe. It gives resonance to the mass and its rituals, giving them more meaning we don’t always hearken to. In a way, we’re so accustomed to them, we may overlook them or take for granted their poetry, symmetry, symbolism or metaphorical significance.

Maybe the attraction of this book is that it shows you what it takes to be a “good” or “practicing” Catholic regardless of how you see yourself. In a sense, it gives you the idea that maybe you should look at yourself in a philosophical mirror. Take a look at what you believe and why and how you got there. It takes a lot to be “good.” Maybe more than you ever thought about.

(Note: There are also “Complete Idiot’s Guides” to “Faith,” “The Bible,” “Understanding Catholicism” and “Christian Prayers & Devotions.” As the owner of “Complete Idiot’s Guides to jazz, wines and creative writing, I can attest to their readability).

Glastonbury Abbey looks like a beautiful place. Check out the review online HERE and the general site HERE. And thank you to Denny, my friend and college journalism professor, for passing on the link. Otherwise, I never would have known about it. Denny is the one who turned my head toward writing as a career, so I have him to thank. Or blame.

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