Teaching non-distraction

We are intentional about our nearly six year-old daughter’s use of technology. We carefully limit her screen time; and we almost never allow her to play interactive games, even educational games, on the iPad. In short, we reason that humans evolved in an analog world where things with which our ancestors interacted were physical objects. Since human evolution doesn’t proceed in the scales of time that encompass an individual human life, the late blooming of interactive technology and its ubiquity in our culture can do nothing to shape the underlying neural bases of our cognition.[1]

Above all, we want our daughter to live in the real world, without cell phones and tablets calling her away from reality into the immersive experience of glowing rectangles. Parents who hand their children a tablet or smart phone to calm them are like a doctor who would treat endocarditis with Tylenol. Sure, it makes the fever better; but the underlying infection continues unabated. In the case of the child given interactive screens to play with, once the screen is withdrawn, they are left to managed in the real world - a world where things don’t interact at the same pace. They become bored and restless. In an attempt to calm their restlessness, the parent hands the child the screen. And the cycle continues. The tight feedback loops experienced by both child and parent reinforce an unfortunate pattern that ultimately derails brain development and, for the child, creates a sense of dissatisfaction with the real world. For the parent, relieved of the discomfort of a restless, bored, frustrated child, the behavior is likewise reinforced.

This is the result we work hard to avoid.

But what worries me is whether we are giving her an advantage in the world. Or is it a disadvantage? Will the world of her future be so enured to distraction and immersion in interactive virtual experiences that it doesn’t accommodate adults whose way of living in the world is by talking to real people, handling real objects, playing real musical musical instruments - in short, living and being in the real world? Or will adults, like our daughter of the future have a striking advantage over her peers because she developed in a way that values real experiences?

  1. I fully understand that humans are quite adaptable and can easily incorporate interactive technology into their lives. The point I’m making is that brain development in children is a process that was encoded by exposure to objects in the real physical world. The physical world, then, is fundamentally important to our cognitive development.