Notice: Let them (or make them) look out the window

This is an opinion column

Sometimes big changes go unnoticed. Right now, believe it or not, I’m thinking of a young frog, a smartphone, and a proverbial frying pan. This obviously requires some explanation.

I must tell you straight away that I do not have a doctorate. in this stuff. I have a strange overview and a lot of reading, observing, and career experiences (the less catchy tune from Led Zeppelin) at the unique and vivid intersection of media and education; I have been an educator and an education reporter, health science reporter, textbook editor, mentor, coach, stay-at-home parent and Teach For America body member before the cell phone. Now that you know where this came from, what savvy readers know is important:

Children no longer just look out the window.

Children – and more and more, people – rarely let their minds wander, this archaic pastime cluttered with screens, constant alerts and phone checks delivering dopamine. What was that old-fashioned word, “dream”? With addicting gadgets by design in our pockets, “paleo-meditation” could be more precise. There is little time for this and even less inclination.

We elders remember being locked in the house or in the back of a car, just looking out the window, maybe with a book but nothing buzzing in our hands, watching the world, which sometimes triggered thoughts, memories, Connections. Yes, the lives of many young people today are “over-structured”, but research shows that this is not the main culprit in the death of mental downtime and literal rewiring of the brain of a generation. The main culprit is our average screen time of almost ten hours a day, and the lion’s growing share, especially among younger people, is smartphone use. The devices and their social media applications are designed to be practical and to exploit our “salience network”, adaptability, variable weighting and covering regions of the brain to determine which of the thousands sensory inputs to which we are consciously attentive. In other words, the technology is designed to bypass something complex, mostly unconscious and utterly fascinating: our ability to filter so much and to concentrate.

Please note that it’s not “this new thing is bad just because in my youth it was different, now leave my lawn”. I’m not saying smartphones and social media do either. no Well. People always speak out against new technology, sometimes wrongly (typewriters destroy neat handwriting), sometimes reasonably (nuclear weapons). And yes, people have made similar statements about television, which To moreover remade our minds and our culture. So much so, in fact, that we don’t see it because, like air, it’s everywhere and what most of us are born into. (If you don’t see it but want to, read the Neil Postman classic Let’s have fun dying.) And smartphones are even more influential than television, just because people don’t walk around with the television in their pockets. almost unconsciously check them every few minutes.

As vaccines, microwave ovens, nuclear weapons and plastic oceans show, it are new things, good and bad, under the sun. Smartphones are new things, and over 10 billion have been sold. In addition to our landfills, they have remade and continue to remake our daily lives and our minds, young growing minds being the most malleable.

As the writer Nicholas Carr says The shallows: what the internet does to our brains, “… the content of a medium matters less than the medium itself in influencing the way we think and act … The media work their magic, or their misdeeds, on the nervous system itself. “Then later, in its second edition 2020,” The smartphone is something new in the world … With smartphones, all the time is in prime time. Because gadgets are always within reach – whether we’re at home, at work, at school, or walking the street – they always intrude on our thoughts.

Common sense and many studies show that smartphones – even when they’re visibly turned off, even if it’s worse when they’re turned on – significantly hamper our ability to focus, learn, remember and empathize.

Before someone cries wolf about me crying wolf, let’s break up, block and ban this bad logic right now: Just because alarmists got it wrong before doesn’t mean people who care trends all eternity. It is a pitifully poor thought. Just because some scientists thought we were headed for a new ice age doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t happening. Reality – cold (or hot), harsh, and objective – is what matters, not that human beings have been wrong in the past. What everyone forgets about the story of the boy who cried wolf is that the last time the boy cried wolf, wolves were real.

So here we are: a growing body of research shows that in addition to sleep disturbances, bullying, ‘FOMO’, misinformation, inappropriate content and related mental health issues, the constant distraction of smartphone use among young people also leads to shorter attention spans, poorer performance on cognitive tests, difficulty forming memories, and difficulty empathizing with people IRL (“In real life” as the children say, perhaps this necessary distinction can convey the extent of the problem). I would add that constant distraction these days erases something that was part of human beings for the vast majority of our existence as a species: periods of time when the mind wanders, when connections are made, and even when inspiration or revelation sometimes strikes.

I was fortunate to teach in environments where phones were not allowed during class and even during a week of wilderness camp. As with any addiction, it is difficult for most children at first to break this habit, but seeing their imaginations, conversations, attention to the world and To each other to lay down and flourish was nothing short of joyful. It was as if something vague and inarticulate but painfully absent had been restored.

I also had the chance to know and teach some extremely rare middle and high school students whose parents had completely banned social media or smartphones. These children are of a different race. Their brains are Literally Different: Plastic human brains are constantly wired and rewired based on use and experience. (This is how synapses work – previous connections are strengthened and new connections are made based on activity; “use it or lose it” applies here as well). These students seem to have more ability to focus, imagine, create, deal with real people right in front of them, and empathize deeply. But ironically, and sadly they are increasingly isolated, their normal human need to connect trumps the latest TikTok video and the peers who will watch it while the kids without phones talk to them about an argument or a fight. a bad grade or a winning sport or a big trip or feeling sad all the time. They are supplanted by peers who are unwittingly but literally reconfigured in a way that makes the simple act of paying attention – let alone real empathy – much more difficult.

And on a larger scale, with altered empathy, why would people struggle and sacrifice themselves to solve painful and complex issues like climate change or hunger or forced relocation until it directly affects them, which could mean that it is too late because they are battling more immediate problems? Or, even assuming that capacity listen for more than 10 seconds, Why listen to the “other side” of a debate? Have you noticed our policy lately? And is there even a chance to fix the aforementioned issues if our ability to to learn is more and more compromised?

And finally, what happens to the species – and that is new under the sun – if the imagination itself becomes an endangered species, if people just don’t let their minds wander? Missed opportunities for creativity, new ideas, new neural connections on a large scale? Certainly. Beyond that, I’m not sure. But we find out.

I’m almost to the point where my students and my own children will occasionally spend an hour doing nothing. Literally nothing. “Structured unstructured time. »No goals, and above all, no devices.

Our children, for our sake and theirs, sometimes need to look out the window. To stare. Go back. To stroll. Connect. “We all do. It’s really good to put the phone down. It won’t hurt. I’m serious will bad at first. But it will get better. It must.

Dan Carsen is a … well, you’ve read a lot of it above. Share your thoughts on smartphones, daydreaming or anything else with him on [email protected].

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