Farewell downtime, hello distraction

by Kristin on November 23, 2010

in Love, family & community

Photo by Zawezome

Last night I discovered that my 12-year-old left town for the week without her cell phone. She’s at my parents’ house, and we will be driving up to join them Wednesday night—she’ll only be phone-free for three full days, but at first I was sort of annoyed. How can a kid today just forget her phone? What if I want to text her about something? What if her friends are texting her and wondering why they aren’t getting a response?

After that knee-jerk response, my thoughts flipped. How wonderful that she has this break from that non-stop world—a chance to spend time with her grandparents and play with her sister without that distraction! And how wonderful that my daughter was even capable of forgetting her phone—that it isn’t so physically, constantly attached to her at the hip.

No shortage of worrying technological influences

I worry a lot about Kids These Days. I guess that means I’m a bonafide old lady (or at least I’m a bonafide, middle aged mom). It’s safe to say that kids’ interaction with technology and social media is perhaps the single topic I find myself mulling over the most. My 14-year-old stepdaughter is the only one of our three girls who’s currently on Facebook, where most of my worries are rooted, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the other two pick up the habit.

For the most part, my thoughts have circled around how social media has changed the way kids interact socially with their peers. I’m constantly comparing my own old-school teenage social interactions with how it works for kids today. While there are definitely some benefits to these quick-and-easy communication opportunities, for the most part thinking about that constant barrage of social cues and emotional triggers just stresses me out.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time worrying about this idea of creating an “online image” at such a young age. Sure, teens are always experimenting with self-expression and “branding,” but Facebook gives them a too-convenient place to solidify and package the “self” they want to portray. It seems to me that it’s easier than ever to come across as someone other than who you really are. (A topic deserving of its own post, another day.)

Are we kissing their attention spans a final farewell?

As if I didn’t have enough worries around how our kids are being impacted by texting and social media, on Sunday the New York Times had to publish the front page article “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction.”

Nothing in this article completely surprised me, but seeing it all there, front and center, was distressing. Smart kids who, in two-month’s time, can only bother themselves to read 43 pages of their one summer reading assignment. Kids who sit together at lunch but spend their entire face-to-face social time on their phones. And kids who are regularly up until well after midnight—not so they can ace the next day’s test, but because they can’t seem to put Facebook to bed.

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say…developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

I didn’t need a formal study to tell me that, or this: “Several recent studies show that young people tend to use home computers for entertainment, not learning, and that this can hurt school performance….” Or this: “…periods of rest (downtime) are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self.” (That’s exactly the kind of downtime my 12-year-old is getting at her grandparents’ house, sans cell phone.)

Most parents I know wouldn’t be at all surprised by these findings, yet so many parents seem to be responding with a “it’s just the way things are now” approach. Why is that? Are we worried about appearing stuffy, old fashioned and out of touch? Are we afraid our kids will become social outcasts or not have as many career opportunities if we limit their computer use?

And mostly importantly I wonder this: Have we forgotten that deep down, kids crave boundaries and guidelines—at least the reasonable ones that are backed by real information, some logic and lots of love?

Similar Posts:


  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us
  • email
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Twitter
  • Roberta King

    Another good post.
    I think kids need more real human connections combined with the self-sufficiency that being unconnected brings. I often wonder about kids who can call their parents at anytime for anything: how do they learn to problem-solve and to think themselves out of small, sticky situations with their own common sense and intuition? While technology brings the appearance of safety and concern I have this sense that it is creating kids that rely on others too much instead of being independent and bold.

  • http://friendswithoutid.wordpress.com/ Jackie


    Thanks for this thoughtful post. As an elementary tech teacher, I wrestle with this issue daily. Recently, I introduced 8, 9 and 10 year olds to an educationally secure online social network (edmodo). I watched as they began responding to an in-class activity, quietly, reflecting in their own space–responding to questions I had posed in a Word document, saving it to their server space. But then, when I opened up the discussion to Edmodo, the students loved watching their comments appear instantaneously on the screen and watched in wonder as their classmates’ thinking became visible before their eyes as well.

    Were all the comments well-reasoned and book-spelled with perfect grammar and powerful insight? No. But like conversation, the interaction created buzz.The quality of that buzz is what educators are still responsible for raising.

    One student eventually had to be removed from the site for put-downs and breaking guidelines–but students are reminded of this and experience consequences in “real life” as well.

    However, there is something charming about a weekend without a cell. Was your daughter in a panic at any point without texting?

    On a side note, I was able to get my WordPress account going and am waiting for my domain to be pointed at WP to claim it as my official URL. (c; Thanks!
    Happy Thanksgiving,

  • http://rawfaithrealworld.wordpress.com/ Linda B.

    I am really concerned by what I see with my students. They are exhausted and fried all the time. They are constantly texting and /or have their ipods on. They are completely stressed out about school and are running from activity to activity without any down time. Any of them that do after school sports also have another 2 – 3 hours taken out of their days multiple days of the weeks. Somewhere along the line I think parents are going to have to rise up, take the bull by the horns and fight for their kid’s quality of life and say enough is enough to the schools the coaches and their kids. I’m not sure exactly what the answer is but I know there has to be a better way to partially wean the kids off that much technology all the time and help them learn to use it as a great tool in moderation. Great art, inventions, and leadership happens when people have time to think and reflect without all the technology invading that time. Great discussion

  • http://rvreyes.com/RVR_designs/Welcome.html Raquel

    Can you please give directions to this elusive downtime?
    I used to know how to get to it but have forgotten the way.
    downtime = at mind with your spirit

  • Jackie

    I just found out about a new book that you may be interested in:

    Hanging out Messing Around Geeking out: Kids Learning and Living with New Media


  • http://www.manypinksneakers.blogspot.com sarah louise

    Thanks for this post. I have started tracking my own computer time, and making lists of things I want to look up when I am online, instead of just going straight to the laptop any time I want something.

    This year our family vacation was sans computers and it was WONDERFUL.

    There is so much more I want to say on this topic…


  • Angela Johnson

    Boundaries in tech should be consistently enforced and MODELED by informed parents. All the things you mentioned are a concern, not to mention, rude sometimes to be distracted when in the presence of humans. I’m all for tech. But we must teach kids to use their powers for good – which is difficult when they are young, impulsive and near sited. Friends of mine collect phones at bedtime and whenever there has been a ‘disagreement’ in the house. That way, no broadcasting after bedtime or when emotions are running high.
    I cringe to think of what I might have posted as a young teen that can never be taken back.
    Thanks for keeping this subject out front. Important stuff!

  • http://www.kristensloan.com Kristen Sloan

    Besides the limited attention spans, I wonder how the texting and technology is effecting the communication skills of our children and youth. Instead of talking to someone about their problems they now text and don’t have to truly open up to one another. They can hide behind their phones instead of learning to speak up and communicate. Just something I think about in regards to technology. Kristen

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Roberta, there is so much wisdom in this: “I think kids need more real human connections combined with the self-sufficiency that being unconnected brings.” I live in a college town and spend a lot of time around students at cafes. It’s amazing what they’ll call their parents about! As a parent, there’s a part of me that hopes my daughters will want to be calling me regularly from college (I typically talked to my parents just once a week), but when I think about my girls and all they need to learn (rather than my own emotions), it’s clear that the constant cell phone lifeline gets in the way.

    Jackie, I’m really glad you were able to point out some of the great benefits of technology in the classroom. There’s a lot of truth in this: “…the interaction created buzz. The quality of that buzz is what educators are still responsible for raising.” I’m a fan of social media (Twitter more than Facebook), so I clearly see the potential benefits of sharing thoughts and ideas this way. It all depends on how it’s being used, of course, which often depends on wise guidance from teachers and parents. Unfortunately, many teachers and parents don’t have the first clue about how to inspire high quality technology interactions. Maybe that’s the first problem that needs to be solved? (Thanks for the book recommendation, too!)

    Linda B., there were many things in the NYT article that concerned me, but I have to say that the part about rest and downtime stood out the most (which is why I ended up working that into my headline). Researchers in the article said downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body. Obviously sleep does a lot for the brain, too! And my 14-year-old stepdaughter’s lack of sleep concerns me more than anything else right now. When I was her age I was still getting 9-10 hours a night, not 6-7! Anyway, I absolutely agree with your “technology in moderation” approach, and with this: “Somewhere along the line I think parents are going to have to rise up, take the bull by the horns and fight for their kid’s quality of life….” Thanks for your thoughts and teacher’s perspective.

    Raquel, yes, I think so many of us have forgotten the way to downtime. It certainly can’t be searched for in Google Maps on our smart phones! I will say that not having a TV in the house (one that gets any channels, that is) makes a huge difference. My kids spend a lot of time reading, playing card and board games, and engaging in imaginative play. They also watch movies and play Wii from time to time, but those activities almost never come up as the things they really want to do. I am also grateful to have kids who crave downtime. It makes it much easier to embrace as a family than it would be if we were constantly trying to force our kids into a slower pace against their will. It’s such a tricky thing, though. Probably a good topic for its own post?

  • http://therevandtheboys.wordpress.com Julie

    This is an excellent discussion. As a pastor to young people – I echo all of the concerns listed, having watched many of my youth become overwhelmed with the lack of downtime. Our time together in youth group has evolved to give them just that – a chance to just be and be loved, to pray and be prayed for, rather than to force them into a “program” or “guided discussion.” It seems to be what they crave more than anything.

    That said, as someone who thinks theologically about all of this, it seems to me to be one part is question of teaching our youth how to be good stewards of the many gifts that they have, including technology. How do each of us balance these gifts? How do we prioritize them? How do we use them for good? How do we decide when it is time to take a sabbath for them- what would that even look like? (I know many 14 year olds who would be lost with 3 days without their cell phone!) We need to help our kids ask and answer these questions for themselves.

    I am like you in appreciating the benefits of social media and technologically savvy youth, but as adults we can see that our interactions online are limited. Perhaps we need to help our youth see these social tools as a step towards the real goal, which is meaningful connection and relationship, in-depth discovery and conversation. To be known fully, by God, by themselves and others, may be what kids are seeking in all this time online/texting. How do we teach them that the fullness of relationship in person is found in quality interactions, not quantity of interactions. When they learn this, then they might choose to turn off or put away our phones when we are in places where real people are in front of them – like at the lunch table or in youth group.

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful and engaging piece!

  • http://www.thestubbornservant.com Nicole Unice

    I think you’ve hit on a hot topic. What I appreciated most about your post was your subtle suggestion that perhaps we need not just go along with the crowd when it comes to how we use technology with our kids. I am a parent of young ones but also work in student ministry, and now I’ll take a turn sounding like the old lady. I’m struck by how connected I can be with students via technology but how immature they are in social and relational skills. My approach is to try and create a space with them that compels them NOT to FB, tweet or text…because they feel engaged, cared for and loved by actual humans in front of them. I can only hope this novel concept of relationship and LOVE will catch on! Bravo to a great post!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Julie, I really like your youth group “philosophy.” Not only is it important to provide spaces for downtime in kids’ lives, but I suspect they crave it—even when they aren’t aware that’s what they crave. This is pure brilliance: “Perhaps we need to help our youth see these social tools as a step towards the real goal, which is meaningful connection and relationship, in-depth discovery and conversation.” So many great thoughts to keep chewing on…

    Nicole, thanks for joining me in the “old lady” talk! I’m a big fan of freedom within form—creating boundaries but then letting kids make choices within those boundaries. That often feels like more freedom than no boundaries at all! (Wendell Berry writes about poetry and marriage both being a form that is freeing, not confining.) Anyway, I love your approach with your youth group kids: “…to try and create a space with them that compels them NOT to FB, tweet or text…because they feel engaged, cared for and loved by actual humans in front of them.”

  • http://www.emergingmummy.com Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Very thoughtful and balanced (as usual). I have found that as I get older, I am almost becoming a bit more radical in some of these boundaries. I almost overthink (almost? okay, I do) everything in the house and how we spend our time. I suppose I see those tendencies in myself and so it makes me want to make sure that there is an awareness of that with our children. My husband is practically a Luddite when it comes to technology, not because he doesn’t understand it but because he feels that it is disembodied communication that creates a lack of empathy, let alone things like most video games, music videos, porn etc. that slam us every moment. I grapple with how to redeem the medium while still restricting it, making us “in the world” but not “of it” even in these ways. Great post, K. xo

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sarah, it’s hard to deny that we’re acting a bit like old ladies, isn’t it? Ugh. I guess that’s all a part of what it means to become wiser, though, right? We’re being mindful and aware, and we’re taking our mindfulness and mixing it with our knowledge and understanding from past experience. And that’s good, right? Right. So let’s just keep grappling with it, and talking to our families and friends about it, and figuring it out as we go. That seems like the only way to go about it.

  • Vince

    i guess i am the ‘old man’ checking in here…
    the ability to focus and study, with intensity and purpose is a strength that enables kids to truly learn and therefore take action in life. My concern is the loss of that ability as a result of these constant distractions. with my daughters, social media and electronic media boundaries are just as important as physical, emotionally protective boundaries… so where is the ‘how to’ book on this?!
    great post