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  • Writer's pictureGena Martine Santoni

Left To Their Own Devices

They say people remember you for the way you make them feel, and this is observably true. After all, as humans we tend to be self-centered creatures. Not in the sense of being selfish, mind you. It’s just that we see and feel things from our own perspective, through our own eyes and ears and minds, and therefore from the vantage point of the self. Only by looking outward, by noticing the effect we are having on others can we take advantage of the above truism. After all, it is hard to know how we are affecting others if we aren’t paying attention.

Paying attention, as a human past-time, is on the wane. Why? People are busy, their to-do lists are long and getting longer. We go faster, multi-task more (it’s a myth, by the way) and therefore, pay attention less. Well, at least to other people. Our devices are getting plenty of attention. The thing is, they don’t feel anything, no matter what Siri says.

Three random events intersected for me recently that really made me think about the impact of the devices in our lives on a more profound level. The first was a commercial about an app for Kindle Fire which allows a parent to limit screen-time for their children. The second was an encounter with a mother, her children and their iPad minis. The third was an article about how young adults are texting their parents from work - all day long. These three events made me wonder, what is all of this screen-time doing to our children’s development? Not just socially, but psychologically?

It is interesting that Kindle has created a way to help parents manage screen time for their children. Obviously, this is a big issue if they have gone to the trouble to advertise something that limits the use of their product. But why are parents having such a hard time with this in the first place?

As I said before, people are busy, and that means parents are really busy. It is a huge temptation to hand a child a device to keep them occupied when we we have so much to do. The hand held devices are the new babysitter, replacing the TV and offering educational games to help us feel better about the amount of screen-time our children are spending. The problem is, it is addicting. Literally.

You might think that I’m being a bit extreme, but I did some digging on the subject, and I found that brain’s reward centers are stimulated by not just video games, but also the constant little rewards of getting texts and other pings on our devices. So what is the harm in that?“If this sounds like much to do about nothing, it isn’t,” says Dr Keith Ablow. “When human beings feel at a loss without mobile technology to anchor their moods and make them feel safe and content, then they are vulnerable to limiting interpersonal contact that interferes with their access to that technology. That can mean less outdoor activity, less conversation, less intimacy and less reliance on one’s own fund of knowledge and ability to structure time and tasks. Needing anything in order to feel normal and free from panic—whether a phone or three glasses of wine—is a disability.”

This brings me to my encounter with the mother and her children. Their iPad Minis went with them everywhere. Even in the restaurant at the table - full gaming, mind you, which was interspersed with exclamations and interruptions of adult conversation. At one point, the mother spent minutes convincing her son to leave the device in the car while they made a five minute stop. The pull of the device was so strong, that he felt that he might “need it” even in that short time. The poor mother, as you might imagine, was exhausted.

Where might this lead? That brings me to the Wall Street Journal article about young adults texting parents while at work. Not on breaks - all through the day. It’s just too easy to reach for the phone and the instant gratification that goes with it. To quote Dr. Meg Jay in the article: Too often, young adults’ knee-jerk reaction to adversity or uncertainty is to message their mother—in many cases, from work. “When we chat our parents, ‘Hey, my boss just yelled at me,’ it robs us of the opportunity of managing this on our own.” She paints our devices as a double edged sword. Being connected is good, but being dependent and self-absorbed is not.

So, what can we do about it? Devices are here to stay and with good reason. They are useful, potentially timesaving tools - it’s how we use them that can make them dangerous. (Texting while driving is 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving intoxicated. One site called it driving while intexticated.)

Here are some ideas I have collected: Have a phone basket in your home. Everyone’s phone goes into it - either at a certain time of day, or when they walk in the door, whatever. The idea is, we are together now, so let’s pay attention to each other. No screens at the dinner table. This must be a family rule to be effective. No screens in bedrooms. According to “Late-night texting and Web surfing have been cited as two of the main reasons why today’s teens are not getting enough sleep, with consequences that range from poor academic performance to obesity.”

We must be very careful of what we are modeling to our children. Are screens at the dinner table off limits - except for dad? Do you ignore your child’s chatter while you check your phone’s email? Do you look at texts while driving? Do you interrupt conversations to take calls that aren’t urgent? There are times for double standards. After all, if a parent has to take a work call, that is different than a child’s social call. Still, the more you can tie your behavior to a certain standard, the clearer your intentions will be to your child and the easier it will be for them to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Ultimately, the benchmark for device use is very simple: The people we are actually with are always more important than the people on the other end of the phone. While we spend time together, let’s leave them to their own devices. •GMS

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