The wisdom of Finn, his dad, and a 17th-century French philosopher get me closer to the key problem – and solution – of living in this networked world.
By Anne Collier
“The most imaginative” of Stephen and Fi’s three kids “in trying to invent reasons to go online,” Finn suddenly proposed a day a week of family “NST” (non-screen time) because, he thoughtfully proposed, “it would make us more imaginative as a family,” Stephen writes in The Guardian. They considered this together, as a family, because they’d been consciously trying to find the right balance of tech and everything else for several weeks. [See the David Bowie quote Stephen relates as having sparked that discussion; it reminds me of Prof. David Finkelhor's explanation for parental fears about the Internet's impact on kids which he termed "juvenoia."]
There is nothing reflexive about this family’s approach to technology, and underlying the family discussion is ongoing personal self-examination, as well as a concern that I suspect most of us have had at one time or another (or all the time?):
Referring to something bigger than all of us, Stephen writes, “Screens now lead us through a maze of private social footpaths that weave and crisscross the whole of life, but on which children largely travel alone.”
Alone or just without us?
I’d like to pause there for a moment. This is worth consideration. First, I think it reflects what Dr. Finkelhor, a parent too, touched on in his talk: the natural concern that parents and other thinkers in the middle of today’s media sea change feel about the seemingly infinite number of potential influences our kids face through screens connected to a whole world – influences other than ours, of course, and screens that are with them more than we could ever be.
But are they really “traveling” alone in that fray? They’re actually far from alone in their seemingly 24/7 connecting with friends. Could our parental concern be more around leaving them on their own in a collective sense? We legitimately wonder if they can handle this constant connectivity on their own, independent of us, because – to a significant degree and to date, while parents, educators, etc. drag their feet in embracing social media at home, school, and other places where children receive guidance and support – this young generation has been left on its own in social media (though of course that’s transitional; it will change as they become parents, educators, etc.).
Challenge ‘Lord of the Flies’ fears!
[The concern becomes really unhelpful, both to us and to our children, I think, when allowed to go to “Lord of the Flies” fears, because research shows that youth are navigating networked life pretty well, in fact, and as well as they’ve been navigating life, which is going better now than a generation ago. Prof. Christopher Ferguson at Texas A&M University wrote in an email that “youth violence is way down, as is teen pregnancy, smoking, alcohol and drug use, suicides, and high school drop-out rates – whereas civic engagement has improved along with youth taking more AP classes in high school. Standardized educational achievement scores have either remained steady or improved slightly. All this [is] compared to scores from 15-20 years ago, when it might have been reasonable to worry greatly about youth. Aside from obesity, perhaps, most trends in youth behavior are moving in a positive direction” (see this article of Ferguson’s at Chronicle.com.]
But being left on one’s own isn’t Finn’s (or probably any kid’s) concern. Remember that his goal was to “make us more imaginative as a family.” That’s the kind of goal that not only helps kids get the kinds of connections they need – at home, online, wherever – it probably also helps parents keep growing. It certainly goes deeper and is more impactful than merely reducing screen time. “We’ve learned that it isn’t about abstinence but balance, and being ‘present’ and connected,” Stephen writes. “The activities and settings where we share our lives with our children may have changed but the need for real, deep connection with them hasn’t.” Absolutely not.
We all know that we can be fully present with someone on a phone and online (e.g., in Skype, Facebook or Gmail chat) as much as in person. Screen time itself doesn’t necessarily detract from that. So what’s on the other end of the balance from connection? Actually a better word than “connection” might be “distraction,” because “connection” is neutral – can be both essential and excessive, though usually not at the same time. “Distraction” gets us much closer to the problem; it detracts from Finn’s and everybody’s imaginative time, creative work, reflection.
Distraction, not connection, the problem
A thoughtful commentary on “The Joy of Quiet” in the New York Times last week cited the view of 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal that “distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries” (the commentary is by author Pico Iyer). Distraction is nothing new. We’ve all always had our distractions (sometimes social, sometimes entertainment, etc.). Today’s digital tools just get us to an unprecedented variety of them so much faster, so that, with all the distractions and the tools themselves being so new to us, more than ever we need to understand what the problem really is – and why we don’t actually want to be distracted all the time. Sometimes the solution is deep connection, online or offline; more often it’s quiet reflection, individual or possibly collective (as a family might reflect out loud); always, though, it requires the kind of balance Stephen refers to (eight times) which gives us time to think.
How to strike that is a question not just for parents but everybody of all ages now. And how we adults – in homes, schools, social services, mental healthcare, etc. – work out our response to it every day, on and off digital devices, is very individual, but will go a long way toward helping our children handle (and not be handled by) all the distractions available to them. We’ll be seeing this trend in 2012 because the need is getting more urgent – not the so-called need to disconnect that’s becoming a cliché but to reflect. Reflection can’t get crowded out by distraction because quietly tuning into our hearts and moral compasses is rewarding as well as preventive and protective for everybody, including our kids, and we can thank digital technology for bringing the question into stark relief. [I welcome your thoughts on any of this in Comments!]
* “We’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines,” according to Iyer in the above-mentioned commentary. And lifelines for highly connected at-risk youth are what Stephen Carrick-Davies’s report “Munch, Poke, Ping: Vulnerable Young People, Social Media and E-Safety” is all about. Here’s a little context I offered in a post about his report.
* For a little historical perspective on social media, see “Social media in the 16th century: How Luther went viral” in The Economist, which says that “five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media helped bring about the Reformation.”
* “The year to come in digital media & learning” at Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning
* “Only sometimes ‘alone together’ in the same room”
* Recent research evidence that “Lord of the Flies” isn’t happening: “Teens’ social media experiences largely positive” from Pew/Internet; “Sexting much rarer than thought to be” from the Crimes Against Children Research Center; and “Declines in 2 online risks for youth” also from the CCRC
* “When … you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts, you are marinating yourself in … other people’s reality,” writer William Deresiewicz told students at West Point in 2009. “You are creating [or subjecting yourself to] a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice,” as you work out your place in the world, might be another way of looking at distraction. I posted about that here.