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Digital distractions

/ 02:14 AM March 19, 2014

One helpful piece of advice that I found in several Internet articles: Don’t go to bed with a smartphone or tablet.

The reason is simple: If you wake up in the middle of the night you’re bound to peek into the phone or tablet, maybe to check the time, or incoming text messages. Two or three hours later, you’re probably still awake because you went on to roam the Internet, and got entangled in all kinds of distractions: an online article that got you into another article, and still another article, sad news in an e-mail, stock market dips, chat and blog rumbles, intriguing Facebook posts (and Facebook intrigues).

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The possibilities are endless and, like a little child, you keep going (“five more minutes and I’ll go back to sleep”), and soon you hear the neighborhood’s fighting cocks crowing. (I can hear some right now, at 3:30 a.m. They’re the only living creatures that get things too early in the Philippines.)

Digital technologies keep us wired and connected, which can be a good thing. But being wired can also mean destructive distractions from work, and from life. A recent article in the New York Times cites studies on these distractions.

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One study, conducted by developmental pediatrician Jenny Radesky and published in the journal Pediatrics, had researchers observing interactions between children and adults dining in Boston fast-food restaurants. Of 55 dining groups observed, 40 had mobile devices. Not surprisingly, researchers found there was more “engagement” among groups where there were no mobile devices. In the groups that had the devices, adults were making phone calls, or “typing and swiping.”

I’ve seen worse in local restaurants, where each member of an entire family—adult or kid—is busy on a phone or tablet, texting, phoning, playing games, doing the Internet.  I’ve banned my kids from using these mobile devices at the dining table—at home or in restaurants—and when we do encounter families in restaurants that are too busy with their phones, I tell the kids to observe, and then point out: Why bother eating out if you’re not going to be talking to each other?

Two or three years ago, I read about one restaurant offering a discount to diners that left their cell phones with the receptionist before they are seated. This wasn’t for security reasons; instead, the restaurant owners thought the diners would better appreciate their food if they weren’t busy with their phones (and, I presume now, tablets). Come to think of it, especially for fine-dining restaurants, having groups of diners behaving like zombies on their phones or tablets can destroy the ambience in a good restaurant.

Let’s get back to that New York Times article, which cites another study by clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair. The study involved interviews with 1,000 children for a book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” The author describes children’s negative reactions to their digital parents, who just don’t give them the attention they need when they have their phones or tablets. What emerges is a new form of sibling rivalry, the resentment against the intrusions of a new member of the family: an electronic device.

Screen-free zones

More than family dynamics, the growing concerns over digital distractions take off from apprehensions over an older technology: television. The American Academy of Pediatrics still advises against having children watching TV before the age of two and advises “screen-free zones” for children of all ages, meaning no TV, computer or video games in children’s bedrooms. The recommendations come out of studies showing that excessive exposure to such media is associated with attention problems, sleeping and eating disorders and obesity.

Still another reason for reducing the use of cell phones and tablets in family settings relates back to the issue of parent-child interactions. The results of studies over the last 20 years are clear: The less parents talk to their children, the slower the kids’ development. The reason is that the less you talk with your children, the slower the acquisition of language skills, which are so important for development. American researchers have found that the problem is more acute with lower-income families, where overworked parents tend to rely more on the use of TV and electronic devices as “babysitters.”

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Talking and learning are just so intricately related, especially for children. That means any kind of setting can be an opportunity for children, and adults, learning something new.

That includes long car trips, and I’m not referring so much to out-of-town adventures as being caught in the traffic in Manila. What happens in traffic jams? You guessed right: Parents and children begin to text, or play electronic games. I wouldn’t mind if they read e-books but no, even Kindle and other e-book readers are used more often now for games rather than reading.

Soon the kids are fighting over the use of the devices, or squabbling over a game, or oohing and aahing at Facebook. (In the Philippines, parents and older relatives put up Facebook sites even for toddlers, unaware of the risks involved.)  As if all the arguing and protesting aren’t enough, someone’s bound to throw up from motion sickness induced by the devices.

And for an adult who’s driving, it’s bad enough that you’re texting or talking on the phone, neglecting the kids… and courting vehicular accidents because of the many distractions, phones and tablets and kids combined.

Science in the car

Just last weekend I got a taste of the alternative. The kids and I were headed to Laguna when one of them shouted, “Butiki, butiki!”  There was a lizard on the windshield. Suddenly, all the kids wanted to get a closer view.  One commented on being able to see the lizard’s “insides”: Look, look at his heart beating. Another was interested in the way the lizard had such a foothold on the windshield, and we began to talk about the little suction cups on its feet. I finally pulled up to the side so all the kids could get a closer view of the lizard.

Said my son the story-teller: “He’s probably been to France, to Canada, to Holland, to China, and now he wants to go with us to Laguna.” But the kids quickly decided: No, the lizard might get blown away on the expressway. I said maybe not, because those suction cups are really powerful. But we thought it’d be too hot, so we had her (we found out that she had eggs in her “insides”) gently lifted off the windshield, and sent off on a grass turf.

“Bye, butiki!” the kids sang out, and I thought of all the other times we’ve had instant science lessons in the car, from rainbows (sunlight hitting the water on glass) to water ballet (watch when a gas station attendant cleans your windshield) to all kinds of insect life. The real world may not be as colorful and “perfect” as the images on a tablet, but you can’t beat another kind of natural wonder to go with nature’s wonders: the interactions of kids with kids, and kids with adults. You won’t notice if you’re too busy on the cell phone or tablet.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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TAGS: Facebook intrigues, Facebook posts, internet, Jenny Radesky, Pediatrics, social media, Tablet, text messages
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