Tech Addiction and Digital Well-being

The other day we finally had a glimpse of beautiful, spring weather.  I literally pried the Xbox remotes from my sons’ hands and shoved my boys through the front door to go play with their neighborhood friends outside.  In addition to recognizing their dire need for a dose of vitamin D, my concern about their overall well-being, particularly a need to unplug from electronics, moved my hand to lock the door behind them!  After changing into shorts and sneakers, I headed out myself for a jog. Twenty minutes later, a few doors down, I jogged past my sons and their friends sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree… STARING AT THEIR PHONES!

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For a while now, a big topic of conversation has been the pros and cons of technology as it has come to shape the lives of kids today.  As a school librarian, experiencing the shift from “book lady” to “digital turnkey,” I have experienced how my newer role in the lives of my students has shifted as well.  I have witnessed firsthand the profound benefits of access to diverse and reliable information in an instant, the breaking of boundaries through long-distance communication and seamless digital collaboration, and the realization of visions and dreams through access to cutting-edge technologies.  Sadly though (devastating, actually), is the subsequent “brain hijacking” that can result from over-reliance and escapism through tech. I must confess that I, myself have been among the afflicted. Many a night I have found myself scrolling through nonsense while a half-read novel sat unopened on my nightstand.

At Google’s Annual Developer Conference, Google I/O, this past month, an interesting thing happened revealing an interesting shift in perspective on the part of those responsible for hijacking our brains.  

Sameer Samat, Google’s VP for Android and Google Play, gave a firsthand account of the surprising relief he experienced when compelled to surrender his phone on a vacation.  His story was a prelude to the unveiling of a collection of new features falling under the category, “digital well-being.” Placing your phone face-down will activate “Shush” mode so you will not hear alerts. You can also track your usage and even place limits on time-sucking applications.   

In addition to special features such as the ones Android has introduced, there has been a surge in new apps targeted toward users seeking a little zen.  During the Google Play Award Ceremony, one of the winning apps was Simple Habit Meditation app, founded by Yunha-Kim. The app contains guided meditations for a host of life situations ranging from “Calm Nerves” to “Breaking Up.”  The app also has meditation timers, reminders and a calendar to track progress. It is just one of a number of apps offering similar features.

As exciting as these new considerations for the tech user are, I firmly believe that the only real way to foster well being is to teach kids to do just that… to “be,” WITHOUT the distraction of any device. The first solution to ANY problem, however, is awareness. Tech companies earnestly acknowledging “digital wellness” is a step in the right direction.

Alas… when I think of brain hijacking and digital wellness, I think back to Hurricane Sandy which decimated much of Long Island.  Although my home did not endure major damage, there was the upheaval of two solid weeks without power in my development. My sons did not yet have cell phones.  It wasn’t fun all the time for certain, but there was something magical about watching my kids fill the place with origami cranes and boats and tripping over board game pieces that got away.  Lego projects resurfaced. We had longer conversations with the neighbors than we had had in all the years I had lived there as people came outside in search of human contact because they lost the digital distraction that was TV.  In short, I loved observing my children and neighbors being mindful and PRESENT.