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High Tech Holidays

Jim Tonkowich | Senior Fellow, Cornwall Alliance | Wednesday, December 15, 2010

High Tech Holidays

"Ho, ho, ho! And what do you want for Christmas, little girl?" The question is one most of us remember from childhood. And it was one that came up last week on, of all places, sports talk radio.

I am not a sports fan. I've played many sports, but follow none. Yet I love sports talk—not for the sports, but for the cultural commentary that gets mixed in.

On December 10, Chad Dukes and Matt "Drab T-Shirt" Cahill of "The LaVar Arrington Show with Chad Dukes" found a list of children's most want Christmas gifts on the Internet. Dukes, who is 32 years old, and Cahill, 28, began by reflecting on their own childhood Christmas gift lists: Ninja Turtles, Star Wars toys, bicycles, basketballs, and the latest Nerf football. Nintendo and Sega Genesis were there too, but their goal was toys, toys, and more toys.

Not any more. According to the list the number one gift kids want today is the iPad. Video iPods and assorted smart phones made the list along with Wii, Playstation III, and X-Box 360—game consoles that do far more than just play games.

Dukes is nervous about all this. From his point of view, giving all sorts of electronics to kids is "progressively taking them further and further out of really doing anything other than being in a room looking at a screen."

He went on:

I worry that kids aren't even getting toys any more…. They're getting electronics and it's kind of wrapping them up in their own little world. Get on a bus or get in a cab or go to a bar and tell me how many people you see interacting with one another and tell me how many people you see flipping through their phones… Well, fast forward to a new generation of children now who are being raised on this technology. Are we even going to speak to each other any more?

If these are the most requested gifts by children—not by adults—children and they are going to be saturated by this stuff from now until they're adults, what type of society are we going to have?

Callers expressed the same dismay. Carlos from Chantilly said he was 22 and shared about his seven year-old half sister. She's in second grade and already has a cell phone. "Why does a seven-year-old need a cell phone?" he wonders. When she gets home from school, she goes into her room, turns on the TV, watches Nickelodeon, and plays games. Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that the neighborhood is full of kids, "no one is ever outside." For Christmas she wants an iPad.

The concerns expressed on the show seem mostly intuitive, but studies on kids and technology justify them completely. 

In the recent New York Times article titled, "Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction," Matt Richtel writes, "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."

He quotes Dr. Michael Rich of the Harvard Medical School and the Center on Media and Child Health who noted that as kids multitask with all the available technologies, "Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing…. The worry is we're raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently." That is, they will not be adults with bad study habits, but ones incapable of certain cognitive functions.

Richtel cites studies indicating that during downtime, our brains become "surprisingly active."  That's when we synthesize information and connect ideas. It's the phenomenon of waking up at 2AM with the solution to some knotty problem that baffled you all day. Dr. Rich told him, "Downtime to the brain is what sleep is to the body, but kids are in a constant state of stimulation." He implored parents to "Bring back boredom."

Many of us who are older and immersed in technology can relate to Nicholas Carr's comment in his 2008 Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" When reading he says, "I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle." What has happened to adults as a result of technology is happening to children in a much more profound way at a much faster rate. 

And the problem for the Church extends far beyond deep reading. Christian spirituality is built on prayer, study, meditation, and contemplation all of which require the ability to concentrate and attend for more than a couple of minutes at a time. 

Ridding your home of technology will not solve the problem. Technology is here to stay and our dependence on technology will only grow. More than that, there are clear benefits to iPads, smart phones, and all the rest. As the dad of one student told Richtel, "If you're not on top of technology, you're not going to be on top of the world." I agree. The question is how to get on top of technology while avoiding being eaten by it. 

For our kids, it begins, like most things in parenting, by modeling good technology habits. "Crackberry" moms and dads will need to set their own house in order first. Learn to turn the gadgets off, maybe by observing a weekly technology Sabbath.  After that, parents need to step up to their role as the final authorities on what technologies end up in their children's hands and how they may be used, which can begin this Christmas. 

Electronics are, to put it mildly, expensive. iPads ranges in price from $499 to $829. Smart phones may only cost $99, but signing and paying on a two year contract is required. Wii consoles are $199, but require a TV (the bigger the better), games and assorted paraphernalia that run up the price tag. If we don't buy these things, our kids won't have them. If we make their purchase contingent on agreeing to well-articulated expectations, our children will agree—or not. Which is to say we can set limits. 

On Thanksgiving, a friend instituted a cell phone drop basket at the front door. No one, particularly not her teenaged nieces and nephews, were going to eat her Thanksgiving dinner while texting under the table. Everyone - including the adults - reluctantly complied. After all, as I recently overheard a young woman say, "My Blackberry is, like, the only way I can see what's going on." Oh, and the television remained off too. 

My friend reported that everyone survived the deprivation. Instead of seeing "what's going on," they all participated in what was going on: a family celebration of God's goodness with a lively dinner table conversation—two things that can help prevent the unhappy world about which Chad Dukes, Drab T-Shirt, Carlos from Chantilly, and others worry.

Publication date: December 15, 2010