November 15, 2010

digital overload? what digital overload?

Using social media is a big topic at work these days.  Some studies show it to be a productivity killer in the workplace, and most companies have some policy to govern usage of blogs, Facebook, YouTube, etc.  Theories abound about how social media is creating information overload, how it's connecting us in more meaningless ways while ruining our "real" relationships, or how it is, you know, leading to world peace or something.

This particular article, about how teens and youth really don't suffer from digital overload like us old fogeys of the pre-internet generation do, caught my attention.

As parents, Maria and I try to limit our kids' screen time to something that seems reasonable to us.  We have a tremendous amount of screen resource in our house--TV, Wii, desktop computer, laptop computer, cell phones, iTouch--and some of that gets used for homework, or creative activity that is really beyond just play.  Our kids fight us at every turn.  Ethan whines and has tantrums when we tell him to turn off the iTouch or the Wii.  Sam sneaks into our home office to tune into "The Office" on Netflix watch-it-now, even if we've told him he's not allowed to.

The article linked above highlights something that's been scratching the back of my mind for some time, though:  what is reasonable for adults might not be reasonable for kids.

When I was little, I was very active--rode my bike miles almost every day, ran around the yard a lot, shot the neighbor's chickens in the butt with my BB gun, blew up plastic models with fire crackers, that kind of thing.  Normal boy stuff.  But I also watched three to four hours of television, on average, every single day.  Did my brain rot?  Maybe.  Who knows how smart or successful I'd have been if I wasn't watching Kung Fu Theater or Spaghetti Western Week or Godzilla destroying Tokyo (again) on the 4 O'Clock Movie?

Certainly my generation has a digital affinity lacking in our parents.  We all know stories of "grandma on facebook," but for the most part those stories are extremely rare when you compare to the total population of grandmas.  But facebook is heavily used by the 40-something generation, as is email.  But 40-somethings don't text that much on average, while kids text all the time.

When I was in 7th grade, my dad gave me an Apple ][+ computer for Christmas.  When I was a freshman in high school, IBM came out  with their PC.  Home computers did not exist prior to this.  The first Mac was not introduced until 1984, at which time the TRS-80 and Timex Sinclair were still popular alternatives.  At this time, my dad showed me how to use his Telex machine at work.  Electric typewriters were still state of the art, especially the high end ones with the erasing ribbon so you could backspace over mistakes.

Part of me wonders if I might actually be doing my son a disservice by limiting his screen time.  When the rest of the children around him are learning how to live in the new world of digital and information overload, should we really be slowing him down just because we adults don't get it, can't handle it?  If he gets enough physical activity and does well in school (straight A's on his last report card), should we just let him calibrate himself and develop the skills he'll need as an adult when technology and information continue their irresistible march to ubiquity?

A good example is Call of Duty:  Black Ops, a game just released and which we picked up for the Wii last Friday.  At any given moment during game play, there are at least four things happening on the screen at once. There's a running ticker of events, a map and radar in the corner, a scoreboard and timer, enemies moving around on and off screen, helicopters arriving, etc.  You can even chat with other players by voice in online play. While I can only keep two or three of these things in my attention at any given time, the boys seem to have no problem seeing and responding to everything.  This seems like an ability that should be developed rather than retarded.

How do you regulate or encourage your children's participation in the world of digital overload?   If you have no children and therefore have all the answers, how would you approach this?


pacatrue said...

Hmmm... million dollar question with no well-researched answer. That's my sort of thing.

Two things come to mind.

1) I think it really is a useful skill (and will continue to be so) to be able to focus on one thing for some extended period. If they show an inability to do that AND you think it's related to not doing that with digital media, it could be a valid reason to limit the digital media.

2) Could they be doing anything better with some of the time? This latter is one I struggle with. I spend a lot of time online (barely watch TV at all) and do various things of some value. But maybe my time would be better spent, not chatting with online friends, but actually doing some creative writing -- just to take a completely random example, of course. There's nothing wrong with chatting with friends. In fact, it's a very good thing, but if it removes too much time from even more valuable stuff, that's an issue.

So there you go. Problem totally solved. :)

fairyhedgehog said...

I don't think anyone really knows at present what the effects are. Mind Hacks is quite a good place to go for a balanced view: at least there is some attempt there to rely on evidence and not on hopes or fears or hype.

I feel like I have no right to take sides on this. My kids are grown up now and it's too late for any influence I might have had on them.

jjdebenedictis said...

It might be better to insist they spend a certain amount of time doing things like exercise, chores, reading, homework, etc., and allow them to control their free time otherwise.

I went through a phase in my teens when I watched truly dreadful amounts of late night television, but I grew out of it. Just because your kids go overboard on something doesn't necessarily mean they're forming a life-long habit.

As for whether playing games forms useful skills, I think as long as humanity continues to rely on cleverer and cleverer computer systems, that it really does. Playing games, yoinking about on the internet, etc., gives a person a comfort using computers that older people, who haven't done that, really struggle to overcome. It's good to not be scared of the machines.

Blogless Troll said...

We got a ][e when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade and I spent a LOT of time on that thing. The difference was there weren't any games worth playing back then, or at least that's what my parents told me. So I spent most of the time "programming" in BASIC.

10 PRINT " O O "
20 PRINT " \ "
30 PRINT " --- "

We limit our kids' screen time too if what they're doing is passive like TV or games, but not so much if they're doing something creative. The conundrum is the games that are really logic puzzles, like the old Marble Drop game and those of that variety. Then I get the "But Daaaaaad I'm learning defense" which I still haven't found an answer to other than, "Yeah? That's great. Now go learn how to clean your room."

I take in comfort in knowing that they will have much more complex things to deal with when it comes to their children.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Ah yes. Me of no children who has all the answers.


Let's start with something I read very recently - a study that said it doesn't matter how much you exercise or how fit you are, your life span rests on how many hours a day you sit. (Let's hear it for standing desks! Geez I need one.)

Okay, so some of the electronic gizmos require or allow for standing. Those should be high priority.

But seriously - my brother was the game wizard with multi-tasking skills and I was the reading, TV watching, lack of self-confidence klutz. I bought my own TV and had the ear plug hidden under the baseboard and up by the head of my bed. I had a rolled up towel for under my door to block the light. And I watched lots of TV.

My brother is better at schmoozing and the art of the deal. He works on computerish hardware - around people. I'm better at computerish software stuff and writing - very solitary. We're both more digitally savvy than a lot of our contemporaries.

As for holding them back: How much time online, texting, etc does it take to become an expert at it? I say let them figure out how to interact face to face and they will be far ahead of the game when they're grown.

fairyhedgehog said...

I saw this and thought of you:
Huffington Post on "Growing Up Digital"