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Ever connected to screens, never connected to people

16/9/2013

By Loz Wong

Dwight Gardner’s recent article in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune raises the seemingly inescapable problem of children (over)using technology. In itself, this problem is nothing new: children watching too much TV and spending too much time playing video games are problems that have been giving parents headaches for decades.

However, the convenience and ubiquity of computers and smartphones have brought countless distractions into the palms and pockets of adults and children alike, and you don’t need to look far to see how these distractions have successfully invaded every waking moment: waiting for a lift, waiting in a lift, on an escalator, on the MTR, even just walking. Videos like this one from Thai mobile phone provider dtac highlight how phone overuse can affect personal relationships, though the idea of turning off in order to wake up to what’s around us has been around for quite some time.

One significant difference that does make this problem new, though, is that parents are often just as (if not more) guilty as their children of using mobile phones/devices too much, and when they shouldn’t.

Moments that used to be wholly personal: meal times, drinks with friends, walks along the beach, are now constantly interrupted by checking emails and social media sites/apps, replying to messages, taking photos…by allowing these interruptions when with children, we establish the habit as something that is normal and completely acceptable.

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 Gardner’s article introduces three books full of tips and ideas for managing your child’s phone usage. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, aims a rebuke at parents who spend too much time with their devices when they are with their children, thus coming across as “unavailable, disconnected”.

In Dr Deborah Stipek’s lecture about Creating A Learner’s Paradise for Children (this lecture was part of Love to Learn, an initiative co-organised by Bring Me A Book Hong Kong), a key message is the importance of intrinsic motivation – ideally, children should read and learn because they are interested in reading and learning, and not because they are forced to or because they want to do well on a test.

Similarly, I believe that if it is made clear to a child that constantly checking or using a device whilst with another person can be viewed as disrespectful and rude, the result will be children who resist the urge to check their phone every two seconds during a meal, and who are happy to have dinner conversations instead of tv dinners. Just as reading with children is crucial to fostering a love of learning in a child, making sure phones and devices take second place to people will have long-lasting effects on how a child uses technology.

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Once we have a situation where we want to be 100% present, rather than wanting to check messages or newsfeeds, (albeit fun) innovations such as phone stacking, new designs, and simple enforced disconnection (see pic) will become unnecessary, restrictive draconian rules will no longer need to be enforced on children, and we will have moved forward and back to a more connected world.