For most of us technology isn’t a choice in the 21st Century, it is a necessity. Unless you go completely off grid, which more and more people are doing, we rely on technology for so much these days.
Without sounding like a luddite, it is because of this increase in the use of technology that we need to learn to be more mindful.
Previous generations didn’t need to learn to be mindful, that was their default state. If they were baking they were concentrating on baking. If they were building a table that was all they were thinking about.
Now we can’t watch television, which is itself a technological distraction, without checking social media, playing games or sending an email at the same time.
What impact is this having?
The impact is huge.
Attention spans are now non-existent in some people, especially children. When I visit schools the pace of lessons is now so fast so that the children don’t lose attention that very few things can be covered in the depth that they often need to be, particularly at secondary level.
It is also creating a generation who don’t know how to interact with others in person. They communicate brilliantly online but ask them to sit and chat and put their phones away and many will struggle to do so for more than a few minutes.
Our brains are changing because of these habits.
How much of it is choice and how much is by design?
The more attention we give to something the more our brain tunes in to that thing because it is designed to place more resources into things we deem to be important. So if we react immediately every time our phone pings our brain will learn that that is an important activity and will even begin to check our phones when we haven’t received an alert.
We are all guilty these days of worrying about someone because they haven’t responded immediately to a message because “they usually get straight back to me”. It could be that they are at the dentist or in a meeting but we immediately worry.
Games are even more addictive.
This week the World Health Organisation officially classified gaming addiction as a disorder (read more here) meaning that treatment will be available on the NHS for people addicted to games.
When we play games online they are designed to make us play more and keep playing longer. Things like Candy Crush and Angry Birds have become so much a part of modern life that adults are competitive in league tables.
I have never been a gamer. But I know many people who are, to varying degrees. I have done an experiment with gaming apps before but with Minion Rush, when my children became obsessed with it, to see what impact it was having. The results were terrifying. This time I decided to see what the big deal was with these online games. I found one that appealed to my sense of order and my packing skills where you had to place blocks in rows to make them disappear.
Describing it it sounds ridiculous. I downloaded it at the start of the World Cup last Thursday, it seemed like something harmless to do while the football was on.
I was wrong.
Within minutes I wanted to keep playing. I know some people find this sort of thing relaxing but my heart rate was raised while I was playing, my eyes felt dry and my concentration was awful. I decided to continue the experiment and see what happened. Sure enough the more I played, the more I wanted to play. I deleted the app and found myself downloading it again when the next football match started.
It was terrifying.
I pride myself on having self control, most of the time. I believe in treats but I am usually pretty disciplined. What was happening?
You’ll be pleased to hear that I have deleted the app and am now addiction free again, but I can only imagine how difficult it is for a child or someone who wants to escape the world to pull away from that state.
Time passes quickly when you are playing these mindless games. You are totally absorbed and as far from being present as I can possibly imagine without being unconscious. If you are unhappy they are the perfect escape – that is not a recommendation!
What can we do to reverse this worrying trend?
As adults we need to set an example to our children.
If they see us permanently attached to our phones this is what they will aspire to.
We need to put our phones down and communicate, face to face more with our children.
This trend towards technology isn’t just affecting our children’s brains and concentration, it is having a huge impact on speech development, vocabulary and physical fitness. They aren’t learning the wide vocabulary previous generations did because they don’t have conversations with older, more experienced people. Many very young children aren’t being spoken to apart from when it is essential. We have all seen pushchairs being pushed with children staring lovingly at their carer, who is staring at a screen or talking on the phone the whole time.
When we eat out children seem to be immediately given a screen to occupy them. I saw a baby who couldn’t yet sit up and was given a bottle of milk during the mealtime, propped up holding Dad’s phone while his parents chatted to their friends the other day. Babies brains are so malleable. Those early years are so important in forming lifelong habits. To say nothing of the extensive research about child development in relation to screen time.
Don’t get me wrong, both my children have access to screens. But they didn’t use one at all until they were school age and the time they spend on them is limited. I am not an angel, and there are days when they are tired, or I am, that they get longer than the hour they are supposed to have, but my son’s time is monitored carefully and my daughter is learning to self regulate (she’s 14).
What are my top tips for staying present in this modern technological world then?
- Limit the time you spend on a screen – particularly for children
- Have a time that you put screens away and stick to it (at least an hour before bedtime so that your brain can rest before sleep)
- Ban phones from mealtimes to encourage conversation
- Get outside as much as possible – nature is a wonderful antidote to technology!
- Try to have technology free days and see the impact it has on your family. Maybe make Sundays technology free
- Learn to meditate. Meditation takes discipline and concentration and will naturally improve attention spans
- Encourage self awareness
If I wasn’t so self aware I may not have noticed all the physical and psychological changes that happened when I played the game. Without that understanding I would have seen no harm in it and may have carried on playing until it became even more of a problem.
There is no doubt that playing computer games is addictive but it is yet another addiction that as a society we need to tackle and take the pressure off our already struggling NHS.
Simon Cowell recently revealed that he has stopped using his mobile phone altogether. This has lead many to follow suit and they are all reporting that they feel better as a result.
Children are surrounded by technology for so much of their waking life. With iPads and interactive white boards at school and games and phones and television at home. We need to make a conscious effort not to rely so heavily on these babysitting tools and to engage more, to move more and to switch off regularly.
You will feel so much better for it, I promise.