Is Technology Wiring Your Child for Distraction?

November 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Is it possible that the constant stimulation from technology available to children today could be rewiring their brain in such a way that they become less able to focus and stay on task? This idea made front page news today in the New York Times.

The articles interviews a group of teens who are having trouble staying focused on schoolwork while facing constant temptation from texting, Facebook, YouTube, and the myriad of other technologies at their fingertips (often simultaneously). The kids interviewed for the report blame falling grades on their use of technology, noting that it zaps their time as well as their interest for the comparatively bland alternative of schoolwork. So that piqued my interest, given that just last week I was wondering in my blog post whether any research had been done on this very subject. The following studies were discussed in the article:

Computer time worse than TV
In a 2007 study conducted at the German Sport University in Cologne, researchers found that playing video games before bedtime led to significantly lower sleep quality and reduced ability to remember vocabulary words. TV watching only decreased sleep efficiency (ratio of time slept to time spent in bed). The researchers hypothesize that it is the stimulating nature of video games that leads to different results. Video games can induce emotional (e.g., frustration, surprise) and physiological changes (e.g., increased heart rate, adrenaline release) that television usually does not. I imagine Facebooking and texting could potentially have similar results, especially in the context of teens, but that was not tested.

The brain needs downtime
Studies in rats suggest that periods of rest are important in order for the brain to make new connections. When rats are allowed to explore unfamiliar areas, brain patterns show that persistent memory is only made after the rats take a break from exploration. Furthermore, recent imaging studies of the brain that show activity in major cross sections of the brain during rest periods have also supported the view that downtime enables the brain to synthesize information. And plenty of scientists are concerned about the apparent loss of downtime to the brain, although no reports were made of related research.

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Not only are kids constantly stimulated, they are also multitasking. The kids interviewed for the Times article note doing homework while facebooking and texting. While not mentioned in the report, I have also read a study by UCLA that multi-tasking affects how you learn, making it more difficult to retrieve information learned.

Conclusion
The NY times report indicates that there is some evidence that technology has some negative effects related to the ability to learn. But is it really rewiring the growing brains of our children for distraction? I have not seen the proof yet. In fact, if you read the comments to the NY Times article, you will see that there are plenty of parents whose kids have thrived after significant exposure to technological distractions. Maybe it just comes down teaching our children the good old adage: everything in moderation……….

Generation Text – Important Things to Consider

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment

It is probably pretty typical for every generation of parents to be shell-shocked by the culture that their kids are growing up in. It is a fairly subjective topic, but I personally think that our kids are living in a new era with greater challenges than we faced growing up. It is not far-fetched to imagine that the technology that we have at our fingertips is significantly changing our brains, as some have argued. I am currently reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. As I read interesting parts, I will share it here since I think it can be relevant to raising kids today. But as far as I can tell, no one has done any research on the effect of today’s technology on the brains of children. Let me know if you know of any studies.

I have, however, read a very good book on the general topic called Generation Text by Michael Osit. The main message that I got out of this book is, that as a parent, we need to help our child navigate this new world rather than complain about its challenges. Keeping the technology away from them is not the answer, but neither is unbridled access. Just as we slowly give children more freedom to venture out into the real world on their own while teaching them how to do so, so we should look at the internet and other elements of the current culture. We need to develop a working knowledge of popular technology in order to teach kids how to use it safely (and this is always evolving – MySpace used to be the forum used by most teens, and now it is Facebook and Formspring, among others. In ten years, it will be something else we can’t even imagine right now). Dr. Osit provides many interesting guidelines and ideas in his book that are too detailed to consider here. But one of his discussion points that caught my eye is the importance of teaching your child sound decision-making.

It is clear that no matter how diligent you are about supervising your children with regards to technology, they will still need to deal with tricky situations when you are not around. Setting limits that reflect your values and good communication are of course key to ensuring that your children develop the necessary self-discipline and decision-making skills to stay away from unsafe, unhealthy, or otherwise harmful material on the internet and elsewhere. To quote Dr. Osit:

Whether they come to you with information about an Internet site, a movie, or peer pressure, the idea is to praise your children for talking to you about the issue, educate them with accurate information about whatever they experienced, and have your children then make their own judgments about it.

In essence, good decision-making skills are more important than ever due to the often unbridled access to the virtual world. You can’t always be there, so the better your child is at making good decisions, the better equipped they will be to handle anything that comes their way. Dr. Osit lists the following suggestions to improve your child’s decison-making skills:

1. Be open to discussing tough subjects with them.
2. Help them clearly identify the problem s/he is experiencing and the goal of their final decision.
3. Think creatively about solutions. Make list of pros and cons and have them brainstorm about options rather than you lecturing about what they can do. This way they learn how to do this on their own when you are not around.
4. Help them act and follow through on a decision so that they benefit from the experience, even if the consequences are negative
5. Have them evaluate the outcome of the decision and possibly reevaluate their approach
6. Prepare your child to make quick decisions. Consider practicing lines with them such as “is this good for me or bad for me” or “go with your gut feeling” or “if Mom or Dad were watching with me, what would they say”, etc.
7. Rehearse specific scenarios and practices lines that allow a child to disengage from a potentially harmful situation
8. Frequently confront your child with quick decisions to make about their normal routine so they practice this skill.
9. Help your child focus on his or her values and goals so that they have a strong conviction to these, making decisions less stressful and less conflicted.

As an aside, a website that helps you monitor media content for children is http://www.commonsensemedia.org. It tells you exactly what might be objectionable in various media so that you and your child can make an educated decision on whether it is appropriate or not.

The Myers-Briggs Test for Kids (free version)

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

While on the topic of testing temperament, I also thought I would mention that there is a free version to test your child’s personality based on Myers-Briggs. It is intended for children 7 to 12 years old and is very fun to do:

http://www.personalitypage.com/cgi-local/build_pqk.cgi

Test Your Child’s Temperament (and it’s free!)

November 16, 2010 2 comments

In addition to reading a lot of books about parenting, I also like to read blogs. So when I find interesting elements, I will share those here as well. If I find the entire blog interesting to following long-term, I add it to my blog roll to the right of the screen.

While browsing tonight, I found an interesting quiz to improve your understanding of your child. Psychologists Alexander Thomas and Stella Chess have come up with nine typical traits that make up a person’s temperament (a few other theories exist as well):

1. Activity level (physical energy)
2. Distractability (tendency to get distracted by events in environment)
3. Intensity (energy level of a positive or negative response)
4. Need for physical routine (predictability in biological functions)
5. Sensory sensitivity (reaction to sensory changes in environment)
6. Initial reaction (approach/withdrawal to a situation)
7. Adaptability (how long a child takes to adjust to a new situation)
8. Persistence (attention span)
9. Usual mood (general tendency toward happy or unhappy demeanor)

You can test your child’s temperament for these 9 traits here:
http://www.readyforlife.org/temperament/quiz

You can also test your own temperament to see how it matches your child’s. The site (http://www.readyforlife.org) also has other interesting information on temperament. Knowing your child’s temperament can help you reframe how you look at your child’s behavior and address their individual needs.

How do you Teach Honesty? The difference between “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “George Washington and the Cherry Tree”

November 15, 2010 2 comments

In the book NurtureShock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman discuss research by Dr. Victoria Talwar, one of the leading experts on children’s lying behavior. During one of Dr. Talwar’s experiments, reading the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree (George confesses he chops downs a prized cherry tree with a hatchet and the father forgives him and says to hear George tell the truth is better than having a thousand cherry trees) cut down lying in boys by 75 percent and in girls by 50 percent. While 75 percent of parents polled by Bronson and Merryman on their website (http://www.nurtureshock.com/) believed The Boy Who Cried Wolf would reduce lying, it actually served to increase it slightly.

In essence, what Dr. Talwar’s research found is that children lie to make parents happy. Most parents respond to lies with anger and punishment. She found in her experiment with six-year olds that what really reduces lying is for the parent to say that they are not upset with the transgression and that if the child tells the truth, they will make the parent very happy. While it also reduces lying to say that the child will make him/herself very happy, young kids are most focused on making their parent happy, hence the greater effect when saying it in the context of the parent’s happiness.

The other reason that children lie, Talwar notes, is that they learn it from us in the most subtle ways – white lies and disapproval about tattling. More on that some other time.

Perspective-taking

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Ellen Galinksy points out in Mind in the Making (2010) that perspective-taking is an essential skill for children to learn in order to become competent adults. I had considered that issue before fin the context of empathizing with others, but I think perspective-taking is a much more appropriate, broadly encompassing term. After all, everyone can benefit from looking at any interaction from the perspective of others. After I discussed Ellen Galinsky’s book with my husband, we now half-jokingly tell each other, just in time to pull us back from an episode of road rage, to remember that the person who just cut us off might just be rushing to a hospital to see a loved one who is hurt. When you look at it from that perspective, it is much easier to calm down and elicit some compassion for another person. And so it is with kids. If we teach them how to see someone else’s perspective, it will be very helpful in relating to others in a positive way.

Perhaps the most interesting research related to perspective-taking is that from Larry Aber. He learned that many years of teaching kids problem solving skills to reduce aggression only had mild effects. He started probing why, asking children what caused them to react aggressively instead of using the problem solving skills that they had been taught. He learned that the children who assume that others are out to get them tend to jump to that conclusion, even when the information is not there to support that conclusion, and this often results in aggression.

So how can you can help your child improve in perspective-taking? Galinksy mentions a long list of indirect approaches, including modeling the behavior. The two direct ways, more commonly mentioned in the literature on this subject, to improve perspective-taking are:

1) Encourage your children to think about people’s responses in many different social situations and help them think through what might be going on in someone else’s mind.

2) Ask children to think about character’s intent in books and tv shows.

I am curious how focusing on perspective-taking might improve sibling relationships, as I often hear my kids drawing conclusions that their sibling is “out to get them”…..

Some more great tips on listening to your child

November 13, 2010 Leave a comment

From Childhood Unbound by Ron Taffel:

1) Pace yourself to be on a similar wavelength with your child. It has been shown that if you mirror someone’s behavior (tone of voice, posture) then they are more likely to open up to you.
2) Don’t interrupt, don’t assume and don’t finish sentences.
3) Try not to immediately fix as in “you are the best, it’s not so bad, etc.”. All such efforts make kids dig in deeper to a negative place and shut you out.
4) Ask concrete questions. For example, the question “what happened then” is powerful for kids because it makes them feel like you really want to hear their story.
5) Help kids tell that story by gently moving them along, without judgment.
6) Stay away from asking why. No one really knows the answer to that question. When, what and who are much better word choices.
7) Sometime after they share something important with you, tell them how good it made you feel…