Saturday, January 15, 2011

Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology

I can think of few people who don't suffer from some kind of problem with effective use of their time but the issue is especially pronounced among those of us who are regularly online. As much as I enjoy the benefits that technology offers, I know that the Internet can be a giant, if fascinating, technological time sink. Anyone who has a smart phone has added techno-pressure to stay connected. This burden of constant connectivity has created a hot topic of conversation, resulting in an effort to convince people to unplug for at least a short period to take a break and reconnect with their real world.

We usually think of consumer behavior as decisions we make about buying stuff, but we also consume time itself. (I prefer the concept of "consuming" rather than "spending" time. We take in entertainment and information and that process consumes our time, too. I never use the expression "killing time" - what an appalling way of thinking!) I feel an acute shortage of time almost every day and I can blame much of that on my use of the Internet. While it's necessary for me to be online for some portion of the day, I'm just as easily seduced as anyone else by interesting links that lead to other interesting links and on and on.

It's difficult for adults to handle time management in relationship to technology, but it's harder for kids even though, and perhaps because, they're technologically more sophisticated than many of their elders. But I hope your children, if you have any, are in better shape than the subjects interviewed for the article "Growing Up Digital; Wired for Distraction" because there are concerns beyond the obvious distractions technology can provide:
". . . computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

"Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

"'Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,' said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: 'The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.'"
One intelligent boy with a low GPA who was mentioned in the article "plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 a.m., even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a 'YouTube bully.'" A 14 year old girl "sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month [emphasis mine], her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying." A 14 year old boy, "an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school."

A quote from another boy offered insight that reflects on adult behavior, too:
"'Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.' He concludes: 'My attention span is getting worse.'"
The Washington Post reported the following results of a poll:
"Youth are spending more time with every form of media than ever, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They spend more hours on the computer, in front of television, playing video games, texting and listening to music than an adult spends full-time at work. According to the study, children ages 8 to 18 are now spending more than 53 hours a week (7:38 hours/day) using entertainment media. Ten years ago, that figure was 43 hours a week."
Of course, every generation for decades has lamented the potential to waste time offered by technological advances from radio to motion pictures to television. And perhaps to some extent they were right; it has always been easy to waste time listening to or watching entertainment on those media, but computers are different. Knowing how to use them has become a crucial skill that kids must master. Parents once might have been able to restrict their children's exposure to television, but computers are often required for homework, are used in many classrooms, and can be the key to future employment. They can't be ignored. And parental restrictions weren't working too well anyway ten years ago if that Washington Post poll is any indication -- 43 hours a week is still a huge amount of time devoted to entertainment media.

It's not just kids who are affected by ever-present technology. Steve Holt commented on Technorati's Soapbox Musings about its effects on adults:
"We keep pads of paper beside the bed to write down everything before we forget it. We look for more things to help us organize and prioritize our 'information,' to help us store it, sort it, filter it, and keep it safe. Because, after all, bad things will happen if we don't, right? What eventually happens is that we are bombarded with so much information, and so many choices, that we can't process everything. So we do the only thing we can do... we shut down, or more specifically, our brains shut down. We no longer spend time thinking critically and processing things. We stay 'shallow' with everything and everyone we come in contact with, and we wonder why we can't remember anything anymore."
Ron Geraci reported at Reader's
"'Technology is allowing us to do things we've never been able to do, and it's positively incredible,' says Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of CrazyBusy. 'The downsides are that it's addictive and you can become tied to it in ways that are exhausting.'

"There's little evidence that the rapid pace of technological innovation has made life markedly more enjoyable. In fact, it may be doing the opposite. Consider a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that 48 percent of Americans feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years. Then consider that all our electronic communication hasn't slowed the raging flood of snail mail, memos, books, magazines and other print matter that most people read to keep up on the job. No wonder that more than a third of those surveyed by the APA said a major factor feeding their stress was work encroaching on personal time."
Clearly there's a balance that we need to find that allows us to reap the benefits of technology without losing ourselves to our computers and gadgets. The Reader's Digest article also offered several suggestions to help us regain control, including setting limits on how and when we're accessible; sticking to a schedule for everything from answering e-mails, texts, and phone calls to recreational Internet use; and recognizing that there's no such thing as multi-tasking on anything that "takes dedicated brainpower to perform optimally." Easier said than done, I fear.

Are you feeling overwhelmed by technology? Have you tried a plan to find that balance in your life? How's it working out for you? And how's it working for your kids?

I'll check for any comments later. Right now I have to update my Facebook status . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob


Steve said...

Excellent article Cynthia! I have been feeling this way for a long time, which is why I wrote that piece in Technorati. With 4 kids of my own, and my experience in the IT field, I see this on a daily basis. I just wish I had the fortitude to change things! As you said... easier said than done!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks, Steve! I appreciated your Technorati commentary. All of us who are struggling with these issues need to figure out a way to get control again. We can't afford the loss of personal productivity and our country can't afford to have a bunch of wired citizens who've lost the ability to concentrate!