May 23, 2016
Distraction Age Living and Learning: Keeping Kids Engaged
The Distraction Age is characterized by a phrase that we never imagined we'd be saying when we were young: Kids these days! Looks like irony will eventually find us no matter what.
I remember hearing these words when I was a child. It started with TV. Then the arcades. Then home video game systems, and now home computers. We spent too much time on TV, watching only what was available pre-cable. We longed to go to the video game arcades, paying a quarter to play with new technology.
This eventually gave way to home video game systems. Suddenly we had instant access, but only proprietary software limited to our game console brand. Now home computers are a mainstay in many households. They provide easy access to all kinds of distractions anytime.
We were consumed by technology, and we played our part in its development into what it is today. That was the beginning of the Distraction Age.
On Focus & Chaos: Understanding the Distraction Age
Now as an adult, I recognize the home computer as a tool for generating income for the family. Now there are tablets, smartphones, and smart watches. This tech will, of course, only continue to evolve and refine.
My own kids don’t see it that way. They have not known any other life without computers. They want to have fun. They are always looking to use the tablet or my smartphone, or spend time on the computer watching videos and playing games. Computers are an easy way for my Asperger’s child to enter a “safe” world. He can experience a fantasy world where no one gets really hurt. Real life is hard for him, after all.
Do computers contribute to an age of distraction? My wife thinks so.
She says kids should be playing outside, witnessing the world and taking part in nature. She feels they should be learning through interacting, not through screens.
I agree with her. Then again, when you’ve got a deadline for a blog and the kids are demanding things from you, tablets are an easy way to get them out of your hair. Other than going “Waldorf” and discarding all gadgets from your life, the only other way is to find ways to make it work.
Either get rid of technology or embrace it and be smart about its use.
You get rid of technology, get used to the idea of having other things to replace it. You’d also better get used to having a messy house and some broken things. That’s what kids do—they play. If they can't focus nervous or anxious energy on a piece of tech, they'll focus it on the next closest thing. With no technology, be prepared to give them time to play outside. In addition, be prepared to learn to play with them.
What the Research Says
In this article, we are reminded about the importance of concentration skills as predeterminate of adult success. Katrina Schwartz, the author, reminds us why focus in the Distraction Age we are in is a balancing act. She states, “It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.”
A study was also conducted in New Zealand on kids born in 1972 and 1973. They were observed early on in their youth regarding their ability to concentrate. When they were 32, researchers revisited these same kids. They found that students who could concentrate early on fared better in life than their distracted counterparts. That was back in the early 70’s. Computers, as I mentioned before, were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are now.
So what does this all say? It says that the ability to concentrate is a much needed skill. Especially now.
The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us sustain attention, also manages troubling emotions. Physical control, emotional control, and empathy are housed here. This part of the brain is still developing will into the 20s.
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, tells us that the neural circuitry for attention needs to be developed. Ramping up development of focusing skills within the school curriculum is a must.
Short of banning devices altogether, he advocates the following:
- Creating a “digital sabbath,” a time for no distraction by electronic devices incorporated into the daily routine
- Incorporating more exercises for strengthening attention through mindfulness practices—that is, more programs to enhance personal, social, and emotional well-being, not just focusing on the test grades; enhancing attention, perseverance, sharing with others, and collaboration
In Learning to BREATHE: A Mindfulness Curriculum for Adolescents to Cultivate Emotion Regulation, Attention, and Performance, author Patricia C. Broderick, PhD calls mindfulness:
“... attentiveness to the present as it is happening. This is quite a different way of using the mind from what we typically experience. Most of the time, children and adolescents use their minds to manipulate ideas or concepts, to recall information from the past or from their storehouse of knowledge, to imagine future circumstances, to plan, to calculate, or to schedule. These are just some of the important functions of mind that improve as children age and that are enhanced through schooling. But there is also a present-moment mind that is aware of unfolding thoughts, feelings, and sensations.”
“There’s a need now to teach kids concentration abilities as part of the school curriculum,” Goleman said. “The more children and teens are natural focusers, the better able they’ll be to use the digital tool for what they have to get done and then to use it in ways that they enjoy.”
In other words, technology is not the enemy. And it won’t go away. What we need to do is teach better skills in using our brains, in light of the added distraction of media.
The Distraction Age factor today is far more prevalent than what it was for children born in the 1970s. Rather than us pining for our parents to take us to the arcade or buy us a gaming system, access is now easier. In fact, it's just a click away.
Indeed, we are aware of the dangers of being consumed by the screen. Our fear is children becoming dependent on a fantasy world and become disengaged in the real world. The Distraction Age is upon us, and we worry about its effect on the attention spans of our youth.
In fact, we needn't worry at all. Technology, if used wisely and smartly, can help us connect to the real world. The challenge is in developing skills outside of technology that help us focus and pay better attention. We can do this through incorporating mindfulness in our curriculums. Taking a simple break from gadgets once in awhile helps too.