The Importance of Being Disconnected

While walking down a busy city street a few days ago, I overheard a mother and her young teen son fussing with each other. The son was complaining that his mom had been on her phone rather than watching him play during a recent game. The mom barked, “Of course I was watching! I saw that every time they threw the ball at you, you couldn’t catch it. Why couldn’t you catch the ball?” Even as I cringed at this mother’s remark, I knew that her response was more a defensive reaction to his criticism about the phone rather than a desire to belittle her son’s athletic ability. I shook my head at her insensitivity, but I have to admit that her tone sounded familiar, as I too have been defensive about this issue on more than one occasion.

“Mommy, get off the phone! Stop checking your blackberry!” I cannot be the only person who regularly hears this from a middle schooler. (My college sophomore and high school junior don’t complain as much, since texting is our primary mode of communication.) In our technology filled universe, where you have the freedom to be anywhere but everyone you know is always able to reach you, it can be pretty tough to remember to turn off the outside world when it is time to focus on your children. I see examples of this everywhere: mothers pushing strollers down the street chatting on the phone rather than talking to their toddlers, families out to dinner bringing the conversation to a dead halt while they check their buzzing devices, and yes, parents at sporting events with their eyes flickering between the action on the court and on their small screens. It is so tempting to be able to accomplish two or more things at once. But is it really a better way to operate?

Recent studies and articles suggest multitasking is not the best use of brain power. A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry found that excessive use of technology reduced user’s intelligence. According to this study conducted for Hewlett-Packard, people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point drop in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. (Really bad news for marijuana smokers who multitask.) A Harvard associate professor of Psychiatry recently noted in an article on the Harvard Business Review’s blog found here that multitaskers are more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity. Studies by Gloria Mark, an “interruption scientist” at the University of California, show that when people are frequently diverted from one task to another, they work faster, but produce less and report significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.

Although the effects of parents excessively multitasking around their children have not been widely studied, experts suggest that this behavior could have a negative impact. Manhattan speech pathologist Shari Harpaz suggests in a piece found here that toddler’s parents who are too focused on their devices can interfere with their children’s language development. Learning social language requires stimulation and the back-and-forth of talking to someone, most often a parent, she notes, and that happens far less often when mom or dad stays on the phone while pushing the stroller. Child psychiatrist Michael Brody, a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, laments the fact that parents’ cell phone use can prevent them from keeping up with what’s going on in a child’s life. “Five years ago, parents would bring a child to see me, and I’d know at least they had spent 15 to 20 minutes together in the car. It’s a great opportunity to talk to a kid,” said Brody, who chairs the television and media committee of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “When you drive through the streets [now], everyone is talking on the phone.” We may complain that our teenagers are incessantly texting or talking on the cell phone, but can you blame them if we are always checking email as well?

OK, so a case can be made that our obsession with staying connected may be diminishing our parenting skills. What can we do about it? Well, there is an obvious answer: make a conscious effort to put the phone away when we are spending time with our children. Or at least vow to spend a certain period of time with your children smartphone free. If they are old enough, you can discuss with them what that time should be.

This advice is so much easier to give then to take. Ask my twelve-year-old son, who believes that I am the last person who should advise anyone on curbing smartphone use. I am getting better, however: I now put the phone away while we walk a few blocks together towards his school each morning. I won’t check emails when I chat with him in the evening about how the school day went. He’s asked that I go email and text free on his birthday, and I’ve agreed. In any event, being conscious of the importance of being disconnected is a big first step. I invite you all to take it with me.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Importance of Being Disconnected

  1. This is such an important issue, thank you for posting about it so thoughtfully. Beyond the importance of “disconnecting” so that we can better connect with our children, it is also critical to model this because more and more the research shows that to ahve truly innovative and creative breakthroughts, the mind needsa break and has to be able to relax. See Jonah Lehrer’s excellent new book, “imagine: How Creativity Works.”

    I went to an excellent lecture last night by a leading educator named Dr. Tony Wagner who has a great new book out called “Creating Innovators”. The book argues that we must make all children “innovation-ready” and not just “college ready” and he talked about how all the young innovators he interviewed were all given space and opportunities for periods of deep focus and convertration when they were children, free from distraction, and screen time was limited.

    Disconnecting ourselves so that our children will be encouraged to disconnect has many levels of benefit.

    Thanks again for raising and exploring this critical issue.

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