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This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.

Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.

So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?

Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.

Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or…  We are distracted by more than just technology.

She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.

People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.

I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices.  I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.

More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.

There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.

You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain.  The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.

“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”

Can you filter the important from the unimportant?

Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.

We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.

Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it?  We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.

It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.

Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.

One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.

The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?

Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox?  That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.

I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.

 

But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more  “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.

 

I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.

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