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Technology as a Distraction: Raising Kids in the Digital Age

Distraction is a real issue with kids and tech. Having a plan can help mitigate the shortcomings of tech and help your kids find balance.

When I speak at schools in communities across the country, parents approach me with their concerns. In every community, technology as a distraction comes up as one of the most frequent—and urgent—issues that worry parents.

Recent data from iKeepSafe suggest that parents are right to be concerned, with 28% of teens reporting that their digital engagement interferes with schoolwork. Even outside the classroom, 44% of tweens admit that their digital pursuits take them away from other things they are doing, and 17% of tweens say that their digital engagement causes problems in relationships with friends and family.

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Click here for rest of the iKeepSafe study.

 

 

Internet distraction, technology is a distraction, technology as distraction, is technology a distraction, parenting in the digital age two problems with technology
Click here for rest of the iKeepSafe study.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adults are hardly exempt from the distraction issue (myself included!), with 14% of adults acknowledging that they need to spend less time with technology. If this issue is challenging for adults, imagine how difficult it is for kids. Teens and tweens are in need of mentorship to help them navigate these challenges. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t ready to unplug completely as our digital engagement bring about significant advantages. We shouldn’t expect that our kids are, either. Let’s look at the issue more deeply.

This data is helpful as it breaks down some different scenarios for distraction/disruption. One of the biggest reveals, later in the study is how much teens and tweens online engagement can interfere with sleep. The is a huge issue, and can masquerade as distraction, as focus is difficult to achieve when you are exhausted! 


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teens and digital distraction

Two Tech Attitudes – Which One Are You?

As I describe in Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, the research on kids and distraction falls into two broad categories: The Optimists and The Cautionists.

  • The Optimists. Techno-optimists believe our minds are getting stronger because of digital technology. Freed from having to remember a ton of facts, we can create and link ideas together in new and interesting ways. Cathy Davidson argues that “monotasking” is not compatible with how our brains work.
  • The Cautionists. Techno-cautionists believe that technology is a distraction – that we are all in “The Shallows,” skimming and scanning and not truly reading. Indeed, before we all jump into eTextbooks, we should look at some of the evidence that format matters.

While there’s more research to be done, there are studies like this one that suggest that we retain information better when it’s in paper form rather than digital form. One question to keep in mind: Is this true only for people who already have a history of learning from paper texts? Or are there properties of printed text that affect memory—such as the physicality of turning a page and knowing where you are in a book? And how is this different for digital natives—our kids?

Annie Murphy Paul says (in research summarized in Slate in 2013) that groups of college students doing important homework checked their phones quite frequently. We seek out breaks in our work and the mental work of toggling back and forth is where we risk sacrificing our best abilities. It seems like only a few seconds of interruption, but it takes us a while to re-engage and get back into the flow. This “dislocation” is a problem as we may get fatigued from the effort of repeatedly bringing ours minds back to a task. Thus, one hour of homework can take 2-3 hours, yet be more exhausting—but the effort is not from the work itself, but the work of constantly re-focusing.

What this may suggest, is that for major work (a longer paper or a serious assignment), your teen or tween student should print out her drafts and proofread them on paper. Editing on paper may be better for many of us. Paperless sounds great and is very ecologically desirable, but many of us need to proofread our most important work on paper. Let’s dive a little deeper into parents’ biggest concern about distraction—homework.

Homework and Distraction

Does this scene sound familiar? Your child goes up to her room to complete her homework—perhaps on a school-issued iPad. Three hours later, she isn’t finished. Was she perhaps iChatting or Facetiming with her friends? Perhaps it started out about the homework, but then she got pulled into other topics. Was she listening to music and “had” to make a new playlist? Did she get distracted by someone’s post on Instagram and feel she was missing out on a social “hangout” that very instant? Or was she just “old school” daydreaming and not focusing?

Most kids in elementary and middle school shouldn’t have 3-4 hours of homework. The homework epidemic is a topic for a whole different book, but do check with your child’s teacher for guidelines about how much time they expect homework to take. If it’s taking way too long (or not long enough), it could be an indicator that there’s an underlying problem.

Many kids need to unplug for homework. Again, check with your child’s teacher. Not all homework requires online time, so offline time (or even turning off your home wifi) during “home study hall” could be an amazingly effective tactic. Imagine the conversations with your spouse and the dishes that would get done if you couldn’t check your email right after dinner!

What You Can Do to Help Your Kids

If you observe that your children are struggling with distractions when completing homework on a tablet or laptop, collaborate with your kids to figure out how to tame the distractions. Here are some strategies—find which ones are best for your family:

  • No double screening. Many students I’ve spoken to say their parents have rules about no double screening, but it can be a huge help. Though it requires some will power, put the other device away. Even if homework requires a tablet, for instance—stick to one device so you can focus.
  • Use tech to fight tech. Some kids will appreciate and enjoy “distraction blockers” like Leechblock and Freedom. While this won’t solve the problem on its own, it can help! As I type this post, I am blocking social media myself. My friends’ babies are cute and breaking news is exciting, but I need to focus.
  • Turn off the tech. Many parents find that simply turning off their home wifi really helps kids get their work done. Again, the Internet and connectivity is only a small part of most kids’ homework. Sure, they may be expected to be in an interactive space with classmates to post a comment, but that is likely only a tiny portion of their homework. Even a blog post as an assignment can be written offline and posted later.
  • Start unplugged to get plugged. If your kids say, “but I need to (collaborate with my friends, be online, use the Internet, etc.) to do my homework,” have them complete all the non-Internet homework first and then have them do the plugged-in homework. Impose a time limit or be present yourself so that they know that they need to finish.
  • Show your struggles too. Lastly, be open with your kids about your own experiences of distraction. Tell them your struggles—how it can be a drain on your productivity at work or that it feels tough to keep up with sometimes. Knowing this can be very helpful to them and make them feel like their own struggles are not “abnormal.”

Hope that you find these suggestions to be helpful. Our devices add a lot to our lives—both positive and negative. Digital Citizenship is about learning how to harness the positives and minimize the negatives. Distraction is not just about the devices, but how we use them. If you can get at the root cause of distraction, you will be in a much better position to mentor your kids on to fight through it and get their homework done!

Please share your most positive experiences with navigating distraction and any challenges in the comments!  Do you have any best practices to share?

 

Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.

PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives? Sign up here!

9 Tips for Successful Parent-Teacher Communication in the Digital Age

 

The digital world has changed almost everything we do, and parent-teacher communication is no exception. You probably have more access to your child’s teacher than you ever did—and certainly more than our parents did. More access and more communication can be a great thing, but it comes with some hazards too. New modes of communication means new etiquette and new expectations.

For instance, a common issue is expected response time. You reach out to the teacher, and you don’t hear back right away. But how long is “right away,” exactly? People’s communication habits vary. So you send another message. Now it has potentially escalated into an issue—when it really didn’t have to.

Some teachers communicate their preferences and state an expected response time. But every teacher is different and many won’t state explicit preferences. I often recommend that schools protect teachers from this by having an expected response time as a part of their policy.

Everyone has a responsibility to one another in learning the new rules: Parents, teachers, and school administrators too! But let’s focus on what we as parents can do to  set a positive tone and foster a good parent-teacher relationship.

  1. Start with empathy. Your child’s teacher has a difficult job—one that is often underestimated and under-appreciated.  There’s new educational technology, new standards, new testing—all of which take time for your child’s teacher to learn and integrate.
  2. Let the teacher choose mode of communication if possible. Communication will be much more free-flowing it you make it as easy as possible for the teacher. Respect her communication preferences. If she prefers e-mail to phone, then e-mail it is! Of course, there are times when only face-to-face will do, but try not to pressure your child’s teacher about the way things “should” be done.
  3. Help if you can. Teachers are often under-resourced and overburdened. Are you super tech-savvy? Maybe you can support the class web page or blog. Your support is not only a nice gesture—it can help the whole class!
  4. Teach boundaries to your child. If your child is old enough to e-mail the teacher herself, then the child should also be aware and respectful of these boundaries and expectations. Just because you and your child can e-mail the teacher, doesn’t always mean it is a good idea.  Before you (or your child) e-mails the teacher, check that the question can’t be resolved another way. If your child didn’t write down the homework assignment, is it available from a classmate or the learning management system? Your child should not make a habit of e-mailing the teacher instead of writing things down or knowing how to look things up. For more on how boundaries can help all of us in the digital world, check out my book: Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World.
  5. Have patience. The learning process can be difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes your child will breeze through a subject with great ease, and other times it will seem like a never-ending slog. Don’t blame the teacher…If possible, dig into the homework assignments with your child. Then, if you can see things are taking far longer than homework policies state, do communicate the specifics with the teacher so you can collaborate on a solution.
  6. Know the teacher’s tools. Is there a digital version of the textbook? Does the textbook—or the homework—require Internet access? If so, how much time? These are great questions to ask the teacher, so that you can mitigate distraction during homework time. If you know this, you can set up unplugged time for homework, or partially-plugged time (computer or tablet not connected to wifi).
  7. Adhere to school rules. Don’t make life difficult by sending your kid to school with devices when they are prohibited by the school. Despite good intentions, it will likely create a classroom issue. You may have a good reason, such as an urgent family matter or a particular health issue. If you need an exception, ask the school first.
  8. Too much access to communication is not always the best thing. Lots of schools now let you check your child’s grades on quizzes and tests as they are posted. Unless you are managing a particular struggle, this much access to information may cause more stress than it is worth! Same thing for texting your kiddo during the day to “check in.” If they aren’t supposed to be on their phones, don’t make it hard for them.
  9. Don’t assume the worst. Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, you can trust that teacher’s intentions are good. If they are not responsive by email they may be dealing with their own family crisis, a grading tsunami, etc. A completely unresponsive teacher does present a challenge that  you may need to address with the school, but someone who doesn’t answer an email right away may be in the middle of reading your child’s essay, attending a professional development workshop, or eating dinner. Assume the best about your child’s teacher, not the worst. It goes a long way.

New technology and new methods can have an amazingly positive effect—if we handle them the right way. It’s all a great opportunity for us as parents to get more involved in our kids’ education. To be generous, to offer support to our teachers, and to do so with a light touch. It’s easier for the teacher to collaborate with you to solve problems when you approach communication thoughtfully, and with empathy.

Please share your most positive experiences and any challenges in the comments! How did you fix it? Do you have any best practices to share?

 

Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.

PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives? Sign up here!

 

New Year’s Tech-Resolutions

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Happy New Year (and Back to School) from Raising Digital Natives

Back to school is a great time to make those tech-resolutions for a more balanced, more empathic, more thoughtful use of technology in the coming year.

Now…that sounds great. But I’ve been locked in my home with my child for 48 hours during an “arctic event.” We have plastic over the windows, but it is still cold, even inside.  It is about as cold as Mars out there.  Many tech-resolutions have been made…and then broken as the rooms of our house start to seem smaller and smaller.

One highlight of our cabin-fever day–made possible by technology–was a google hangout conversation with the my parents where my son and his grandfather read to each other from The Lorax. Some of our other tech-time was a little less inspiring…but that’s another story.

Nothing like 40 below with the wind chill to bring on a lot more digital engagement than we might otherwise choose.  If you are lucky enough to be in a location where it is warm enough for your kids to head back to school today, then try to grab a moment to jot down a quick list of new year’s tech-intentions for your family.

To get you started…

Here are some quick ideas to help integrate/regulate/domesticate the new tech devices that may have entered your home during the holidays. Now that the boxes are in the recycling bin, the first question you may have is, should this go to school?

If your child is the proud owner of a new smartphone, iPod Touch, gaming device or tablet, this is an important question. Find out what the school’s rules are and what is allowed by your child’s teacher. If the device is supposed to be contained all day in a locker, it may be easier and safer to leave it at home. Even if you don’t agree with restrictions at your child’s school, don’t encourage your kids to be sneaky. Get them to think with you about why the rules are in place and what the alternatives could look like.

Settings

Now that you’ve had this new item for a little while, you may want to be sure the settings are appropriate for your child’s age. For an iPod touch: go to settings, then general, then restrictions. You will make up a passcode and from there you can turn off apps you don’t want your child to have access to. You may want to turn off the ability to install and delete apps as well. You can also turn off “in-app purchases” so your little gamer doesn’t spend your mortgage on gold coins. You may want to replace Safari with a kid’s browser as well (AVG and McGruff are two free ones.)

For those using iPads or other Apple products, you may not want to share an Apple ID with your child— unless you also want your child getting your messages and calendar updates. Think carefully! Android tablets have some nice kid safe modes that will work for younger kids and completely annoy older kids.

What to do with older kids?

Talk early and often! Ask them what they are doing and with whom. Have them show you examples of social media profiles that they think are cool, and others that they think are tasteless or gross. The more they can articulate about their standards, the more you’ll know where they need mentorship. Opening up the conversation is the most important step you can take to help them navigate this terrain. Consider keeping smartphones in adult bedrooms overnight (especially for middle schoolers!)

For Teachers

A new semester offers a perfect time to assess both how your connected learning efforts are going and how you can include parents in your class’s learning community. Are there opportunities for the students to show off their process—not just their product—to parents in a hands-on demo event? Can a working parent be a guest speaker in your classroom through tele-presence? If something is NOT engaging the students the way you hoped, can your students come up with some ideas about how to tweak the project or change the dynamic?

For the Whole Family

What will your “unplugged time” look like each week? And what is some media content that you can all enjoy together this year? How will you model thoughtful and balanced use of your own shiny new devices?

A new year is a great time to think about the opportunity to change what you didn’t like from the previous year…You may want to post your resolutions. Stay warm, and if you are already warm–I am officially envious!

Wish me luck, I hear we may be back to school tomorrow.

PS: Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Along with occasional updates and offers from Raising Digital Natives? Sign up here!

Photo Credit: Photo is by Daniela Reinsch

 

 

Building a media ecology in your home….one meal at a time

Last night I gave a talk about “building a media ecology in your home” to parents of 3-9 year olds. I had a number of wonderful conversations with parents afterwards–but one in particular really made me think. First of all, I am happy to say, this conversation happened with a dad. At many parent talks I’ve offered, the audience has been about 80% moms, so I am always delighted to see a more even split, as I did at this talk. This father started out by thanking me for not making him feel like a “bad parent” in my talk. This is so important to me, I think judging other parents prevents us from building strong communities where we all watch out for everyone’s kids…

Anyway, this dad wanted to know about eating in front of the TV. Remembering how I had just asked parents not to judge other parents, I wanted to respond appropriately! Specifically, he wondered whether it would harm his children’s minds or their social skills if they ate some of their meals while watching a show? In their house, children are sometimes allowed to eat while watching TV as a treat, or at times when the adults want a little adult time over dinner. This is a hard question to answer definitively, as my goal is to help families do what works for them…But I do  believe that ideally, family meals can be important for teaching kids social skills, hearing about their week, and for them to see us adults in our relationship.

Yet the desire to sit down with your partner for a quiet meal sometime before your kids leave for college is understandable… What I suggested was that he focus on having unplugged family meals  all together at certain times. Maybe some meals that involve the siblings watching a show while parents eat and catch up would give this family the energy for some unplugged meals where they all sit down together. Another alternative is to feed kids first a sit down meal that is not in front of a screen (but where you talk with them, and they sit for whatever time is developmentally reasonable) and then you can “release them” for a show or game while you eat. This used to be traditional in some families, and is still the norm in families that have parents that get home from work too late for the childrens’ schedules.

Fans of “mindful eating” would probably prefer the two shift approach to dinners, because it involves postponing media time until after a meal. Eating while you are distracted can be associated with obesity, etc. I think the most important thing to do is to create some unplugged ritual meal time that you stick to so kids can get used to it and look forward to it! It is far better to have an attainable goal than to throw up your hands.