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

June 7, 2010 | Uncategorized

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.



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