Digital addiction.

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When Mary Shelley penned her novel “Franckenstein” the concept of creating a mutant humanoid being was far fetched.  Though many readers enjoyed a pleasurable thrill of fear, none of her peers seriously imagined this could ever be a reality.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and that concept is not so impossible. It just looks different. Instead of an immediately visible ‘monster’ we’re facing an entire generation of humans being forever changed through the rewiring of their brains.

Ask anyone from the Baby Boomer generation if they’d have imagined it possible that children would prefer to be engaged with a hand held electronic device on a sunny summer afternoon, rather than with a soccer ball or bicycle, or for that matter, other children.  No doubt they’d say no. However the memory of children playing for hours using their just imagination or a low-tech toy is probably very distant.

Today almost every school child has a cell phone.  Every middle school child it seems has their own P.C. Every high school student has what appears to be an extra limb consisting of one of a string of ever changing electronic devices locking them into a virtual world while effectively locking their parents and teachers out.

Nearly all teenagers go through the turbulence of feeling misunderstood and the need to rebel in an attempt to assert control over their lives.  In times past, unless they joined a cult, it wasn’t a given that they were able to completely shut off input from their closest authority figures, no matter how much they wished to do so.  Now, however, they can all too easily exit what their parents consider a ‘normal’ life and take up residence in a virtual existence, often as incomprehensible to adults as it’s impenetrable.

According to some recent studies, interaction with cell phones, texting, computers and video games is rewiring the brains of the next generation.  Some of the most visible changes are the growing alienation from traditional relationships, the inability or unwillingness to participate in traditional schooling and a dramatically shorter attention span.

Is this virtual world ‘dumbing’ our kids? In terms of traditional norms including schooling, it seems so. ( and )

What’s emerging is the tendency to travel the path of least resistance. It’s more fun to text friends or play digital games, or listen to music on YouTube than it is to plough through a boring text book and complete  a homework assignment.  Self discipline seems completely non-existent when it comes to doing homework and chores, while the level of obsession becomes frighteningly evident in the amount of effort and time expended on virtual pursuits.  The New York Times article “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel spells this out with clarity.

A decade ago, we were concerned about kids watching too much TV. But watching TV was something parents could control by pulling a plug out of the wall socket. If that didn’t work, a parent could resort to dropping their cable subscription.  But it’s much more difficult to prise a teenager away from their cell phone or laptop.  Most parents put up with their child’s excessive cell phone usage in favor of the safety of being able to contact them at all times.  Monitoring what the child is actually doing on the cell phone is virtually impossible.

Taking away the P.C. is not an option either, as most children need one for school and are required to do research on the internet.  Most parents wouldn’t even think about separating their children from these devices anyway.  How could they?  If Junior isn’t ‘connected’ he’ll fall behind his peers and he’ll be functionally illiterate in today’s cyber world – in other words, he’ll be unemployable.

Studies have also shown that involvement in the virtual world appears to exaggerate a child’s personality traits. Those who are social are now enabled to take their social habits to a whole new level going far beyond their geographic and parental borders.  Those who are more introverted can indulge their disinclination for human contact through submersion into a world of video games and virtual reality that can quickly alter their perceptions of life. It’s the ultimate in escapism.

One has to wonder how this onslaught on our children’s minds has happened so easily. I believe it’s partly the increase and easy availability of technology and partly it’s the economic pressure being exerted on families.  Stay-at-home parents are rare.  Single parent households abound and those with two parents usually see both working longer hours with more work related demands than ever before.

TV as a babysitter has been replaced by cell phone, computer, video games and the like. The energy of the younger generation is being channeled like a melting glacier into a river bed that flows into completely unexplored territory, while the parental generation is struggling to find the energy and time to do all and be all at work and at home. All they really want is to provide the best possible future for their children and have a hope of a retirement nest egg.  When and how could they have seen what was happening?  And seeing, would most even remotely understand the long-term implications?

It’s faintly reminiscent of the youth indoctrination common to dictatorship or communist regimes. One often wonders how it’s possible for youth to be capable of some the more aberrant behavior common in these types of situations, however, all it takes is a slow but consistent indoctrination and the steady desensitization to other’s feelings.

What’s the solution? It’s not easy and it’s not quick. In my opinion, the only way to counteract the negatives and harness the positive opportunities afforded by technology is more involvement in our children’s lives, not less.  Finding common ground, establishing common interests and creating a meaningful relationship instead of assuming that it will happen naturally.  Physical tokens of affection such as regular hugs and kisses as well as frequent verbal expression of affection.  Remember that old song, “Have I told you lately that I love you?“  Well, it’s not just for husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends and so on…

Call me naive.  I believe that technology can’t simulate it, obliterate it or alienate it.  In the end, “Love conquers all”.

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