Rest and Connect to Get the Most Out of Your (Digital) Life

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When it comes to media and technology, naming the things that we do not want our children to do comes naturally to many of us parents. The urge to protect our children is strong, and as we gaze out into the digital wilderness it is no surprise that the risks, pitfalls, and challenges can loom large. Many of our concerns are warranted. There is a growing body of evidence linking excessive technology use with all kinds of negative outcomes for kids. I guess that’s why Taiwan just joined China and South Korea making it a crime for parents to "over-expose" their children to technology.

This is not to say that parents don’t experience profound ambivalence when it comes to technology. On the one hand, we want our kids to take advantage of and enjoy the powerful technology that can help them learn, connect, create, and participate fully in 21st century life. On the other hand, we worry. We have power struggles. We reminisce about the good old days.

Navigating this ambivalence is part and parcel of getting beyond the “lock down” or “hands off” approach and charting a parenting path towards digital citizenship. I’ve written before about how important it is to name and celebrate our children’s digital strengths, a helpful exercise to combat the lock down impulse.

It might also help us strike the right balance to name and celebrate what we do want our children and teens to plug into besides computers, tablets and smart phones. A couple of recent studies point to two things we should pay attention to.

1. Opportunities to “look in”

“I just feel exhausted” a 9th grader told me after a talk a couple of months ago. “There are always things to be doing, updated, responding to. I mean don’t get me wrong I love it…Most of the time. But it is exhausting.”

Children and youth today are consuming and responding to streams of information at unprecedented rates and some young people are starting to articulate just how tiring it can be to be “always on, always connected.” We would be wise to listen to them. The cost of an always-connected life is not limited to fatigue.

Many of us think that we are either paying attention or we aren't. Research over the last ten years, however, has revealed that we have two different attention systems: a "looking out" system and a "looking in" system. One we use when we play video games or read a text from a friend, the other when we reflect, remember, feel social emotions, or daydream. The challenge for us humans is that we can't use both attention systems at once. Instead, we toggle back and forth between them.

It turns out that “looking in" is important for our emotional and psychological health. We are just beginning to understand the incredible brain benefits that come from a rest state, but it is clear that this it is inextricably linked to our social, emotional, and ethical lives. For example, the more often we reflectively pause when confronted with an emotional story, the better we are at abstracting the emotions and morals from one specific event and applying them to others. The challenge today is that in a media rich world, our attention is increasingly pulled outward towards sound bites, snippets, and clicks.

The takeaway from this research is not that media and technology inherently corrupt our psychological lives. On the contrary we can gain incredibly valuable information, perspectives, and relationships through technology that can enrich our social and emotional lives.

The takeaway is that processing the moral and emotional consequences of what we experience both online and offline requires rest and reflection. Far from being a waste of time, “looking in” may enable us to look back out in ways that are more intentional, thoughtful, and just.

2. Opportunities to look up.

We've known for a long time that little children need live social interactions to learn effectively. Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, reminds us "that need doesn't go away" as children grow up.

Indeed, we've written before about the late Clifford Nass' research with heavy media multitaskers. He found that face-to-face time acted as a clear antidote to the negative social and emotional impacts of heavy media use among tween girls. Our kids might be born into this world hardwired for empathy and connection, but research shows that they need a lot of in-person interactions with peers to fully develop these skills. Indeed, learning to read emotions and respond to them is hard work and takes lots of practice. Girls ages 8-12 are in a critical period in their development where they are learning to navigate the tricky contours of relational emotions on their own. It is no surprise that if they turn towards screens instead of each other, they won't do it as well.

Researchers with the Children's Media Center @ Los Angeles likewise found that pre-teens who spent five days at an overnight nature camp without access to technology showed significant improvement over that time in recognizing nonverbal emotion cues compared to the control group that retained normal media habits. While study design made it impossible to make a causal conclusion, the authors make a convincing argument that the increase in in-person communication was likely responsible for these changes. Time in the natural world, an experience known to have cognitive benefits, may have laid a productive stage for more meaningful interactions but this factor alone doesn’t explain improvements in emotional communication.

The takeaway here is not that spending time with screens makes our kids sad or emotionally illiterate. The takeaway is that they plenty of opportunities to look up from their screens and into the eyes of a friend.

The digital world in which our children are growing up is complex and changing quickly. During times of great change it is tempting to fall into the "lock down" and "turn off" approach. So how do we resist this impulse? It’s all about balance. I hope that my children's digital lives are engaging, entertaining, connecting, and full of new learning. It is in support of this vision of technology, not in resistance to it, that we need to defend the unplugged spaces that enable them to look in and look up as well.

Here are a few practical tips to get you started: