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Contemplative Computing: A Discussion with Author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's new book, released in September, tackles the thorny contemporary question of digital addiction with an age-old tool: contemplation. Here he discusses his experience and his book The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul.

Seattle's Child: Do you have to be familiar with contemplative practices (like meditation) to achieve the benefits of contemplative computing?

You don't have to, but it certainly helps – and the ability to slow yourself down, to take a breath and settle your body and mind, is invaluable no matter what. Contemplation isn't just something that happens when you're meditating. Playing piano, writing, hiking, even slicing vegetables or folding laundry can be calming if you're in the right mood and approach it the right way.

Today, children are aware of – and often participants in – the use of technology from birth. How and how early do we start them on the contemplative path?

From the moment they're swaddled (blankets are a kind of technology, after all), kids are shaped by and engage with technology. I think the challenge for young parents is to regulate their kids' time with devices (but not to feel like bad parents if they OCCASIONALLY use the iPad as a nanny); then, as they get older – say, about 8 or 9 – to introduce them to the idea that these devices are powerful, but with great power comes great responsibility.

I argue that we shouldn't protect children from technology. Our responsibility as parents is to make them smart about it: smart users, smart about what they do and don't reveal online, smart about using it to be productive and curious, without being too distracting. For older children, the ability to center themselves (when using technology) is really useful. It's what the coach tries to get them to do after the other team has scored, or the music teacher does during practice.

How should parents talk to their kids about digital addiction?

It requires encouraging them to pay attention to their own practices and states of mind (when using technology), which does not come naturally to anyone. I would be positive rather than alarmist. There are good reasons technologies and games are compelling. Playing games can help promote a degree of resilience and problem-solving ability, IF you point out to them that the lessons they learn there can be applied elsewhere. And if they play the right games. Super-violent games, ones that encourage button-mashing, or use social networks to guilt you into playing longer than you should (looking at you, Draw Something), are bad; games that require and reward skill, though, are great.

What are a few specific ways that parents can experiment with their kids' use?

For young kids, it's really no different from experimenting with toys, or foods, or anything else. Don't be guided too closely by expert advice. You have to become an expert in your child, observing how your child reacts (to a program or device), seeing how challenging/rewarding they are, and from that building a model of what they like and need and keeping to it.

For older kids, encourage them to keep a tech diary, to record EVERY interaction with digital media and technology for a week. They're likely to find that they feel rushed, or they don't have time to hang out with their friends, because digital activities – or merely managing their computers, installing updates and tweaking printer settings – absorb a lot more time than they expect. If you can get them to experiment with taking written notes versus on a computer, that's also useful.

What do kids and parents most need to know to curb the potentially negative impacts of information technologies?

We live in a world in which our attention is a resource to be mined, like fishing stocks or rainforests. We need to learn how to resist that.

For kids, the idea that their attention is incredibly valuable, and should belong to THEM. Game and social media companies are fundamentally in the same business of gathering and re-purposing attention.

Buried deep in every technology is the ability to tweak it, to change its behavior, so it goes from a device or service that perpetually demands your attention, to one that protects your attention. Is your child up to the challenge of finding that switch?

Remember this is a very long game, and you're only there for the opening. The best you can do is give them the tools to be thoughtful and aware of the challenges, to be mindful about themselves and technologies, and to make choices that work for them and will make them good people.

I am the parent of 15- and 18-year-olds. Can mindfulness be achieved even after a lifetime of mindless exposure?

The bad news is that games and social media, like anything, can be addictive, and they can affect our brains – our capacity to pay attention, our need for stimulus – in ways that are negative. The good news is that none of this is permanent: You can get those abilities back.

Neuroplasticity means never having an excuse to give up on yourself.

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