A debate continues regarding the impact of certain technologies on brain function. Specifically, researchers are studying how the constant interruptions that accompany internet-enabled computer use affect productivity. Most adults can understand why there is a concern. We sit down to compose a letter or complete a presentation and it isn’t long before we hear the “ping” of a new email that has been delivered. No matter if the email is important or simply amusing, before long we realize that we just took a 10-minute tech detour from the task at hand.
In an article in the New York Times published this summer, Matt Richtel wrote, “While many people say that multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information…and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.”
It seems highly plausible that there is good and bad that goes along with the digital landscape in which we live. For the sake of young people, I am interested in ensuring that parents and guardians make the effort to understand how their child is using their computer, smart phone or whatever new “connected” device comes down the road.
I have already heard that some members of Class VI are not getting to sleep until midnight! While some of this is typical and has to do with the adjustment to a new school and learning how to meet new expectations, I also believe that part of the problem stems from time-wasting activities on the computer and the World Wide Web. In the Middle School at Nobles, games, YouTube and social networking sites are against the rules. This is, in part, to avoid inappropriate content, but it is primarily to attempt to make sure that they are using their time at school wisely. At home, you’ll need to pick up the chase, set the rules and police your policies. Some suggestions about how to approach the task:
- Start by evaluating what is going on. Talk to your child to see if he or she believes that s/he is wasting time with technology. (Hint: just because they say “no” is not necessarily an indication that they don’t waste time.) If they acknowledge that they waste time, try to learn which activities waste the most time. Usual suspects will include: the “chat” feature on email, iChat on the Macintosh, frivolous email, web-based games, Facebook and other social networking sites, fantasy football and other sports-based fantasy games.
- If you want a comprehensive look at how computer time is being spent, there are both free and pay versions of a program called “RescueTime” which will record and chart computer usage and will make some educated guesses about whether it was time well spent or not. (If you go this route, I would be fascinated to hear what you learn!)
After understanding what is going on, create a game plan and set some rules. If it becomes obvious that your child is inefficiently multitasking and/or procrastinating on the web, agree on some strategies to attempt to ameliorate the problem. What tasks can (and should) be done with the computer shut down? If your child always says, for example, that they are online to get a homework assignment from a friend, why is that the case? How can the student make sure that they come home with the assignment written down and obviate the need for the chat or email to a peer?
How about using a good old paper dictionary instead of the online version? If “research” is needed, how about having the student create the list of questions and takes 15 minutes to just research and find the answers online. She can print what is most helpful and then turn off the computer and start planning the assignment.
Make sure that email and chat features are turned off when the student is writing a paper. Many students will shut off their “airport” (wireless signal) when they are writing a paper.
It takes a great deal of discipline to avoid the technology time-traps. (Honesty moment: since I’ve been writing this document, I have checked my email three… O.K. four! times.) The dividends, however, which include better quality work and healthy sleep habits, are substantial.
While “unplugging” provides a healthy respite from the web, adults need to acknowledge that the digital distractions will only become more pervasive. Parents and guardians must work to ensure that young people understand the implications of the constant interruptions and help their children avoid them.