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Digital Addiction

Thor Radford

I am feeling a bit wrung out at the moment. I spent the weekend flip-flopping between parental self-flagellation and the weak hope that I might still guide my technology-addicted couch-potato kids to a more Zen-like relationship with the digital world in which they live.

This emotional rollercoaster was launched by two books: The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa H. Barker, and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul. The title lengths alone knocked the wind outta me.

The Big Disconnect

I am the mother of two teenagers. My son is a mildly autistic 15-year-old who lives and breathes thrash metal YouTube videos. And my 18-year-old daughter's fingers move so swiftly over her phone that I'm reminded of the dust whirls left behind by Road Runner.

Despite my best efforts, my kids have always found a way to ping, chat, text, tweet, pin, post or otherwise sit inert in front of some glowing orb. Their dad doesn't see this as a particularly bad thing. "It's their world," he tells me.

But I live in a world of fear. I worry constantly that their brains are physically going to mush. My son has emotional breakdowns if he can't get his daily computer fix and my daughter's phone pings with texts dozens of times a night – yes, I actually counted. So it was with great interest and hope that I opened The Big Disconnect.

You know the term rock bottom? Steiner-Adair's is a rock-bottom kind of book for a parent like me, outlining the many, many ways in which technology is stealing childhood away from our kids, causing them to be more stressed, less focused and increasingly disconnected from us while becoming more and more influenced by the sonic-paced, hyper-sexualized universe of the digital world. She pours out discomforting research and unsettling interviews with lots of parents, including one whose child's first word was pone (phone) rather than mama.

Reading The Big Disconnect was painful.

"Are we blindly cultivating a generation of 'crack-berry' kids? In our enthusiasm to be early adopters, and to give our kids every advantage, are we putting our children in harm's way?" the lead author asks.

She's not pinning my daughter's texting addiction on the technology itself. She's pinning it on me. And she's right.

How many times, Steiner-Adair asks me, have I multi-tasked on my kids – continued typing while pretending to give them my attention? Like a bespectacled librarian stink-eyeing kids roughhousing down her aisles, she lumps me right in with a generation of parents who are "unavailable, disconnected or narcissistic."

The Big Disconnect offers some fine ideas on mitigating the impacts of technology – but the most useful advice this book offers is nothing new: Limit your child's access and time spent with digital devices, and model healthy tech use. On page 191 there's a useful list of statements and rules with which I plan to assail my son. For this wonderfully direct boundary-setting page alone I would recommend this book.

The Distraction Addiction

Ugh, I thought as I put that book down, looked across the room to my happy-go-lucky 15-year-old (digitally, I should add, as we Skyped between Los Angeles and Seattle), and picked up The Distraction Addiction.

Within a few pages, a sense of relief and hope began to rise within me. While both books are divine works of jargon, The Distraction Addiction has words I'm at least familiar with: meditation, mindfulness, balance, rest, peace ... all concepts I encourage my kids to practice even while they dope up on Netflix. And according to author Pang it's not too late: My kids can lead level-headed, focused lives and still spend serious amounts of time on their digital apparatus.

Pang, who does his research at Stanford and Oxford universities, makes some of the same arguments as Steiner-Adair that the digital world is creating a generation of tech addicts young and old. He too suggests unplugging, but in a planned, thoughtful way, rather than the kill-your-TV approach I felt compelled toward after reading Steiner-Adair.

Pang argues that technology has been a part of human evolution since man first used sticks to make fire. As then, today's technologies are intended to make our lives easier. The ones that do will continue along humankind's evolutionary path, the ones that don't will disappear.

"The problem is that today's information technologies are often poorly designed and thoughtlessly used: they're like unreliable prosthetics that we have to depend on, but can't quite control or trust," Pang says.

Pang is a champion of "contemplative computing."

"Rather than being forced into a state of perpetual distraction, with all the unhappiness and discontent such a state creates, we can approach information technologies in a way that is mindful and nearly effortless and that contributes to our ability to focus, be creative, and be happy."

How do you mindfully choose technologies that boost rather than burst your or your child's energy and creativity? Pang suggests conducting a systematic observation of the physical and psychological reactions to specific technology cues. Do certain programs frustrate your child? Amp him up? Help your child make tech choices that work for him rather than against him.

The key here is mindfulness. Pang notes that human experiences with computers have 'recalibrated' our ideas about work, connection and intelligence, "and led us to value such computer-like qualities as efficiency, speed and productivity over human qualities of creativity, deliberation and thoroughness." Understanding this is crucial to healthful interaction with technology, stresses Pang. "Knowing about such effects can let us resist them," he says.

This gives me questions to ask. For example, my tweet-addicted daughter and I can ask ourselves: Does tweeting or facebooking actually make our lives more efficient or happier? Or, do we both feel an overwhelming social obligation to check in and respond to posts we don't really care about? If it's the latter, it doesn't mean we need to stop engaging in these activities. But we might consider writing only when we have something important to say. Unlike The Big Disconnect, The Distraction Addition offers me topics for dinner conversation I can look forward to without dread. I can envision a thoughtful discussion of why we tweet with my daughter rather than a one-directional rant on how tweeting will make her arthritic.

Beyond learning to mindfully interact with technology, contemplative computing is just what it sounds like: using contemplative practices to help regulate and restore brain power and creativity rather than decay it.

"In the last three decades, neuroscientists, psychologists and therapists have all observed that contemplative practices can help restore cognitive abilities – memory, attention, focus – lost to physical injury, post-traumatic stress or chronic illness," says Pang. "This suggests that contemplative practices don't just offer a way to settle the monkey mind. They can help us regain control of the extended mind as well."

Read the Q&A interviews with the authors to learn more: Contemplative Computing: A discussion with author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and Making Connection: A discussion with author Catherine Steiner-Adair.

Cheryl Murfin is a longtime Seattle’s Child writer/editor and owner of Seattle-based doula service NestingInstincts.org. She is the mother of two teens.


Pang's Core Ideas

Pang's core ideas (and chapter titles) are a guide for changing my and my kids' experience of technology, reducing its addictive power, increasing our connection to each other and the world around us, and leading more healthy, if tech-heavy, lives: 

Breathe: Pang cites a study that shows most people hold their breath when opening email. Breathing is the single most effective tool against anxiety, stress and illness. The first step in contemplative computing is breathing – deeply – throughout the experience.

Simplify: Here's an example: Millions of families use Microsoft Word, a behemoth with numerous menus, options and icons pulling at the writer (say your child is writing an essay). Pang suggests trying WriteRoom, a program with a clean interface designed to help the writer focus. Open it and all you see is a green cursor against a black background. That's it. 

Meditate: Literally. It makes your mind work better. 

Experiment: Pang suggests you log your email usage – and invite your child to do the same. If you’re like me, you'll learn how often you check email and send replies for no real reason. My logging revealed that I check email about 25 times a day. Cutting that in half gave me an extra four hours of offline time with my family. 

Rest: Value offline as much as online time and strive for equal parts in a week. Don't think you have the willpower to stay offline? Install a program like Freedom. It forces you to stay offline for an amount of time you designate and won't budge unless you reboot. Let guilt change your ways. Bodies need rest. So do minds.

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