Digital Culture and Distraction

One immense factor in the changing landscape of childhood is the rise in technology and digital devices that are used by all different age levels in American households. The constant stream of information and communication channels that are readily available throughout the day on a variety of devices are having an effect on the way in which we interact with others, our world, and ourselves. This technology at our constant reach, often leaves us in a constant state of distraction. Much research is being done on how this distraction is effecting the health of adults and children.

Modern society is inundated with screens that do everything from connect us in text chatter across the globe, provide us with data and imagery of virtually anything we can imagine, and help us control our other household devices. With the touch of our finger, these small, medium, and large screens in our lives deliver information and entertainment in seconds. We therefore have the easy ability to distract us away from our inner worlds of thoughts and emotions. Digital distraction also points to the realization that we literally screen off our actual world, with all its ruggedness and rawness, and fit whatever is happening into a virtual world of sound, pictures, and videos we carry in our pockets (Lief, 2014).

This digital distraction can includes how we gain knowledge about world events, and also how we communicate interpersonally with friends and family in our lives. Even with activities that seem to be beneficial like chatting with a friend who lives far away, the issue with distraction comes from the way in which most people lack the balance of interacting with their devices. Most adults are attached to their devices, and constantly checking their emails, social media accounts, and text for updates. This now extends to adolescents and children.

Given the recent domination of handheld technology included in childhood and adolescence, it has become important for parents, professionals, and educators to consider the possible connection between being “plugged-in” and mental and physical health. “Nielsen and the Pew Research Center have found that American’s spend an average of 60 hours a month online, or 720 hours a year” (Pang, 2013, 10). Children’s usage continues to increase as well. Recent research into how the brain is effected by our digital distraction is beginning to shed light on important considerations.

All of this research is informing important dialogue about how to combat some of the negative effects. At the same time, brain research into the effects of mindfulness practice, including meditation, is also growing and showing results that support the notion that it can provided needed health benefits for the distracted modern person.

Digital Mindfulness

Digital mindfulness is a new field of inquiry and practice that integrates important components of mindful behavior with our digital devices and communications. Living in a strongly established and integrated digital society has powerful impacts on human development, interactions, and individual well-being for adults and the children they are raising. Promoting mindful behavior with digital devices in childhood can have positive affects on various social and health concerns, as well as cultural patterns. Parents are currently in a precarious position as these digital devices and online worlds are new to their experience, and navigating skillful habits and behaviors is a new undertaking. It would stand to reason that many parents would therefore be willing to integrate mindfulness strategies into the digital habits of their family. This “digital mindfulness” could include unplugging, setting intentions, and other exercise that provide awareness into the positive and negative affects of using certain types of devices and applications.

Parenting in a Smartphone world.

Parents seem to be feeling the pressure when it comes to balancing their children’s technology use when it comes to familial interactions. mindfulness can become an important tool in this ongoing struggle. Surveys show parents feel in constant battle with their child about managing the devices, that the child is attached to device, and that this makes them feel disconnected from their youth (Bethune & Lewan, 2017). Children of younger and younger ages are growing up faster as they, “organize their social lives with cellphones, and teenagers launch businesses from their bedrooms.” (Honore, 2004, p. 248).

Parenting books, experts, and discussions are starting to address the concerns that arise from integrating digital devices and particularly social media into a healthy childhood. It has  become important to consider the possibility that digital technologies might be contributing to the upsurge in childhood depression and anxiety disorders. Many professionals and researchers suggest that too much screen time has negative effects on children’s overall mental well-being, “almost every child or teen I encounter is too wired from anxiety, screen stimulation, or both to sleep well enough to function inside or outside the classroom” (Willard, Saltzman, & Greenland, 2015, p. 2). This is becoming a strong and common concern for parents, as they learn to help navigate their children through life with digital tools.

There are some ways in which parents can practice digital mindfulness with their children including bringing awareness and intention to their own habits, understanding the difference between inner and outer worlds, practicing contemplative computing and engaging in digital detox. 

Awareness.

In any discussion regarding mindfulness for the family and digital distraction what becomes immediately relevant is the awareness that parents should bring to their own digital habits. In understanding their own attachment to their devices, parents can set good examples of establishing health and balanced habits when using media, and also in choosing time to unplug. As these forms of communication and information browsing take more of our time and attention, mindfulness becomes increasingly more necessary to act as balance between our inner and outer worlds (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).

Inner and outer worlds.

Mindfulness practice brings us in contact to our inner world, bridging the gap from our ruminating minds to the present moment. This can be a key understanding when we spend much of our day with activities like email, text, or viewing others social media posts that keeps our focus on the outer world. This does not give us space to notice what is happening in our mind and body (Levy, 2016). David M. Levy has been in the professional and high-speed tech world and also the contemplative world of slower living. His book, Mindful Tech offers effective exercise to bring mindfulness to our digital culture to make meaningful and powerful changes. He points to the fact that when we are more attentive, relaxed, and stable, our online life can be healthier and more beneficial (2016).

Levy describes improving our digital craft by using our devices with greater skill, including intention, care, skill, and learning (p. 7, 2016). In bringing this kind of awareness and work to this portion of our life that takes up a great deal of our time, we can avoid what we do that might be mindless or cause parents stress online. Families are made up of separate individuals, and imagining these kids choosing how to interact with their devices, and how to intentionally spend their time would have a great impact on the individual’s feelings and thoughts, but also on the unit as a whole.

Levy includes a section in his book “Beyond Individual Change” where he emphasizes the idea that when you affect an individual, this individual goes off into society with the lesson or learning. Therefore, teaching parents how to practice silence in the home, and extend that silent and mindful practice into their technology use, could have substantial impacts on many relationships even extending beyond that family (2016, p. 12). Offering parents a guide to mindfulness, ways in which to bring it to their children, fitting it into a family structure, and utilizing it in our daily digital interactions and behaviors would be a valuable tool.

Contemplative computing.

Technology guru, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, talks about digital mindfulness by using the term contemplative computing. He shares this idea in his book, Distraction Addition and shares that contemplative computing shows you how to use your mind and body to interact with computers and how your attention and creativity are influenced by technology (2013). This contemplative computing requires the understanding of four main principles:

The first is our relationships with information technologies are incredibly deep and express unique human capacities. The second big idea is the world has become a more distracting place – and there are solutions for bringing the extended mind back under control. The third big idea is that it’s necessary to be contemplative about technology. And the fourth big idea is you can redesign your extended mind (Pang, 2013, p.14-15).

Pang expands upon these principles by including eight additional principles for contemplative computing that integrate the first four:

When you learn to be aware of how devices and media affect your breathing and mood; when you replace switch-tasking with real multi-tasking; when you adopt tools and practices designed to protect your attention; when you tweet mindfully; when you employ restorative spaces and digital Sabbaths to recharge your mind (2013, p. 216).

 The eight principles are “be human, be calm, be mindful, make conscious choices, extend your abilities, seek flow, use technologies in ways that engage you with the world, and use or abstain from technologies in ways that are restorative, that renew your capacity for attention” (Pang, 2013).

Digital detox.

Many parents address the concerns they have with their children’s technology habits by negotiating time for the family to “unplug” during each day. Mindfulness brings the idea of awareness with it, and keeping track of specific time where digital distraction are not allowed, provides good and intentional silence from the barrage of information and communication. Bringing the simple idea of cultivating good and intentional moments and spaces of silence in the family structure can allow for a more positive approach to unplugged time. If it becomes about adding something – like mindful practice or intentional silence – then the digital devices do not maintain their function of being the only “positive” element. 

This idea, often referred to as “digital detox” is gaining attention in many spheres of society where it is practiced in different ways and over different periods of time.  According to a 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association regarding American’s checking their digital devices, a large number of Americans agree that periodically “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is important for their mental health. 2017). And, according to a 2015 research report from Pew, about a third of parents whose children have daily screen time worry that their children spend too much time on these devices (2015).

It can be helpful for parents to encourage their children to keep a tech diary, as suggested by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in Distraction Addiction. This tech diary would keep track of every single digital interaction the youth has in the course of one day, mark down how the rest of the time is spent and then crunch the numbers seeing how much total times does to these devices. The individual can then evaluate the day by considering when they needed a digital device for the task or it was just a preference, the emotional response involved in different activities, being aware of multitasking habits, and reflecting on the overall positive and negative feelings associated with the different activities (2013, p. 232). It would be valuable for the parents to engage in keeping a tech diary of their own for the same purpose.