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Technology Fear Therapy for Parents and Schools

Just in time for the Halloween season comes this post inspired by Wes Fryer (@wfryer). A few months ago I noticed a change on Wes’ Twitter profile to now include the job title of “Technology Fear Therapist”. See below:

Notice the title change by Wes…subtle

Annually, I travel to all the booster club meetings and church groups around my district giving talks around technology, social media, and our kids. His title change, while arguably un-subtle, struck a chord with me when it comes to those in my role in a school district. I’d say this same role applies to the teacher that uses technology meaningfully in their classroom or the parent that uses it as a tool in their homes.

We have entered an age of extremism in some ways. Everything is good or everything is bad. It’s either black or white, there is no grey area. Technology, being fairly new on the scene, has seen the brunt of this extremism as you can scan articles, blog posts, Facebook rants, tweets, and even commercials like this one here that are intended to subtly shame people for having their phones out. Parents and schools are feeling judged, whether justified or not, about their usage of technology and that of their kids. What’s interesting is, I don’t see the same level of judgment when it comes to a kid that reads too much or a kid that paints too much. However, once that kid reads or creates on a screen, judgment ensues.

This reminds me of an H.P. Lovecraft quote that I use quite often is:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

This fear of the unknown has affected how we approach technology usage with our kids and could debilitate the future wellness of our kids. As with anything in life, balance is what we should be trying to achieve. Being fearful of technology or social media or banning it all together doesn’t help with that balance.  My hope in this article and the accompanying talks is to empower parents and schools to work with kids on this balance. To do so, we need to first look at what is creating or increasing the fear and then determine how do we turn that around so that we can embrace the changes around us.

A Disclaimer on “Research”

Know this, research can be used negatively or positively to persuade an audience. Part of the extremism I mentioned above around technology is usually accompanied by a line that looks something like this: “More and more research is showing that [insert tech term here] is bad for kids.”  Let’s unpack that for a moment. The first part of that sentence isn’t fact-based at all, it’s an opinion to the person writing it that they perceive an increase in research towards one direction or another. The truth is, there is more research out there (which happens over time naturally), but it’s in both directions and sides of the argument (again, remember the extremism).

I recently had an enlightening discussion with a colleague (Dr. Holly Moore) around research and how it’s viewed and used. Essentially, saying the words “there is research out there” supporting a side to an argument doesn’t really make it so (obviously). However, linking to research in the form of scholarly research articles that have been vetted at a university or medical level can be powerful. Links to a New York Times post or a blog post don’t qualify as actually vetted research, those are just the opinions of the writer, meant to persuade readers or increase readership.

Let’s look at the following example that was recently shared with me: A Dark Consensus on Screens and Kids. The title gives me pause immediately as it implies there is some sort of national agreement on what follows. Then take a look at the tag-line “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones” – that’s a major red flag and should add some level of skepticism about what is to follow unless….it supports your own narrative. Looking over the article, it’s riddled with anecdotes and stories from a handful of people. Another red flag – This article includes ZERO links to actual research. At the end, there are some links about some big name Silicon Valley people that made choices around their own kids and technology usage.  Note that the attribution to Mark Zuckerberg isn’t actually Mark, it’s an associate at his former company. There is a link to Melinda Gates where she actually talks about working to balance tech with her kids and even the Steve Jobs article where he talks about he limited technology use at home. That’s a much different story than “consensus of Silicon Valley figure heads is that screens are bad.” But you can see why the title is so attractive and why for some, it helps support their narrative.

It reminds me of a post I wrote earlier this year – EVERYONE Who Reads This Blog Becomes Smarter, Study Shows – as a way to lure in readership. Even in the cases of research that is not just an opinion piece like the NYTimes article above, you have to look at who is sponsoring the research as it may be used to push an agenda in one direction or the other.  The larger concern as a community is that people read these articles and consider them to be absolute truth. This only expands the technology fear and is exacerbated by the following two effects.

The Echo Chamber Effect

We are creating our own echo chambers around all sorts of topics (especially politics at the moment). Whether it be on Facebook or chatting with other parents at our kid’s soccer game, our conversations influence our actions and reactions. However, our conversational circles are extremely closed and lack, in many cases, a diversity of thought or opinion. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people that share our morals and beliefs. This also means when someone from our trusted circle brings forth an example or blog post that supports our beliefs, we believe to be a hard fact even if it isn’t. This “Echo Chamber Effect” leads to an increase of the next Technology Fear Factor…

The Anecdotal Evidence Multiplier

Someone saw someone once do something inappropriate with technology. Someone heard from a friend that a kid was having behavioral problems due to screen time. Someone shared an article like the NYTimes one posted above that is really just a series of anecdotes, but cause for concern. This story or situation is shared and re-shared in the trusted circle which therefore causes the human mind to feel it must be widespread when in fact, it’s a single situation shared multiple times. This isn’t unique to technology by the way, but lately it seems that tech is the largest passenger on the Anecdotal Express.  Whenever I hear of someone struggling with their kids and technology, I try to remember there are two sides to every story and there are multiple other factors that might be having an affect on the child (family environment, sleep, diet, expectations, etc.) before I take it in as fact.

Hearing a story, even from someone in your trusted circle, doesn’t mean it’s 100% fact. The culmination of many of the above effects is evidenced by this recent findings from an Australian company called Reachout. (somewhat similar to our CommonSenseMedia here in the states)  One of the lead findings is that 45% of parents worry about social media usage with their teens more so than the 25% who worry about drug, tobacco and alcohol usage with teens.  Technology has now become more dangerous in these parents’ minds than things that actually do physical damage to the body. That’s not to say there isn’t the possibility of emotional and psychological damage due to social media (more on that in a minute), but that we are more worried about the unknown of social media versus the known vices we all grew up around prior to adult life.

Social Media

As you can tell by the above data, social media can seem like a scary place for some. Despite all of its perceived ills, there are some positives as well. According to a Pew Internet Study (May 2018), the feelings of teens when it comes to social media is pretty mixed. While 24% feel that social media negatively impacts their lives, 31% feel it adds some benefit. The rest fall in the middle of either indifference or no impact.

So whether we like it or not, it does have an effect on kids’ lives. As educators, we need to work with students on this impact and teach them how to balance its effect so that positive number is increased (or at least lower the negative one). As parents, we need to have open and ongoing discussions with our own kids around situations that arise on social media, just like real life.

Our district has spent the last two years investing heavily in curriculum and resources around social emotional learning. Technology and social media are intrinsically tied to this initiative. That said, there are some very intriguing resources available to the general public around the topics of social media, mindfulness, and tech-life balance (scroll to the bottom for these resources).

Screen Time

The debate around screen time has been happening since the 1950’s and the invention of the television. It’s not a new argument, but as we have seen an increase in screens entering our lives, there has also been an increase on research around their effect on our eyes and minds. The American Academy of Pediatrics  has put out guidelines around screen time for the last several decades and recently updated some of their recommendations. Schools around the country are faced with a conundrum when it comes to screen time and kids, so keeping the recommendations of the AAP in mind are key when issuing school work on screens. In my parent talks, I reference the following graphic to show that screen time can fall into four quadrants and even within each quadrant is a continuum based on the media being used or consumed.

Screen time can fall into these four quadrants

As a parent, teacher or school district, it’s important to discern how the screens are being used inside the classroom (a place that schools can control) and inside the home (a place where parents can control).  Keeping on the same page as a community around this topic will strengthen the connections being made and help students learn balance and self-management as they age out of our programs.

Trends

A large amount of energy has been spent around the research and effects of social media and screen time and with good reason. These two topics even deserve their own sections in this post (above), so I think it’s important to note that these are two of the top issues weighing on the minds of parents. That said, sometimes I try to think and predict what’s next? A few trends I see globally that will have an effect on our kids are:

The Internet of Things (IoT): When we increase technology access, we increase the chances for something to happen (whether it be good or bad).  On the smart home front, I had my own parenting flop recently when I gave all three of my daughter’s an Amazon Echo Dot in their room and then FAILED to set up any type of restrictions right away. While they didn’t get into anything too bad (turns out the Chordette’s song Lollipop has an alternate version by Lil’ Wayne), they were able to freely purchase anything they liked. “Alexa, send me some puppies” and “Echo, send me a pet from the Amazon” were a couple of requests which resulted in the strange delivery below appearing on my doorstep a few days later.

Stuffed animal puppies and a boa constrictor from Amazon! (Turns out my parents were behind this prank)

While the prank above did illicit a fair share of laughs around the Hooker household, it did make me pause and think. As parents in this world of the “Internet of Things”, we have to consider that anything with connectivity has potential benefit and detriment depending on the action of the user. Again, it’s all about the balance.

(for a quick laugh tied to this topic, see my post on “When Smart Homes Attack“)

Augmented and Virtual Reality: The increasing use of augmented and virtual realities in the everyday world will have a tremendous effect on the future of our kids. They’ll be able to pull up their phones or put on some glasses and instantly see shopping deals, directions, and traffic patterns to avoid. Doctors can already use augmented reality tools to locate veins and virtual reality is allowing doctors to train and practice delicate medical procedures.

We can already immerse ourselves in virtual parts of our world and even other worlds (read Earnest Cline’s Ready Player One to see the possibility of this). Just like with smart devices and the internet of things, the increase of technology also means that we’ll need to make sure we increase attention on keeping our tech-infused life balanced. While I see some tremendous benefit to these technologies, I also worry about over-use and misuse of these tools if left unchecked.

The Ever-Changing Role of the Parent

So what does all this mean for the role of parents? As a dad of three little girls, I am both excited and exhausted to think about what the future holds for them when it comes to technology. I know my role as a parent (just as the role of educator) is to help maintain and model what good digital wellness looks like. All three of my girls are different in many ways, but I see this a lot when it comes to their behavior and attitude around screen time (specifically the passive-entertainment based screen time from the graphic above). We have struggled with our middle child around this, but like anything else when it comes to parenting, consistency and communication are the key. We’ve spent a great deal of energy in helping her learn self-management. As the AAP puts it, we need to become media mentors for our kids.

This is NOT easy. The easier solution would be to not have any of our kids deal with technology at all, which is justified by anecdotes and fear-learning stories. Just make it a complete no-tech zone at home, problem solved right? This may be the easier solution in the short-term, but it’s not a long-term way to teach and raise our kids around these tools that will be with them the rest of their lives. Our role as parents and as educators is teaching them the right balance.

After all, we’re raising adults, not children, right?

Tools and Resources for Parents and Schools

This is in no way a comprehensive list, but a good start when it comes to tools and discussion points with parents and school communities around a balanced approach technology usage.

Common Sense Media I’ve mentioned this in this post and several past posts. A great FREE resource for parents when it comes to apps, social media, movies, etc.

Note To Self Podcast – Manoush Zamarodi is an amazing podcast host who brings in people from a variety of industries to discuss how we keep life balanced in this every changing world.

TechHappyLifeA site created by Dr. Mike Brooks (a local Austinite) on tools and tips for balancing a “tech happy” life. I’ve also had the pleasure of watching Dr. Brooks speak and would say he’s a great person to consider brining in to your next parent group meeting. He’s even put out a book recently titled Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.

Dr. Devorah Heitner – I’ve become familiar with Devorah’s over the years and have seen her present at SXSW here in Austin. I also interviewed her for my own book series around this. He book ScreenWise is a tremendous resource for any parent and I see now that she’s even offering up a Phonewise Boot Camp for parents!

Center for Mindfulness & Human Potential – The Education Initiative out of UC-Santa Barbara has some potential for helping high school students when it comes to actual strategies and training around digital wellness and life-balance. Dr. Michael Mrazek and his team of researchers are discovering new ways to help schools with this and with the help of the Department of Education, hope to be reaching at least a million high school students yearly from now until 2025.

Right-Click: Parenting Your Teenager in a Digital Media World – This book came highly recommended to me from colleague Brianna Hodges and has many easy to digest scenarios and tools for parents of teens and pre-teens.

Kerry GallagherKerry is another colleague that I’ve come to know over the years when researching digital wellness. She is a practitioner (she’s an AP at a school in the Northeast) and a tremendous speaker on a variety of topics but especially in the world of digital connection and our youth.

Mobile Learning Mindset: A Parent’s Guide to Supporting Digital Age Learners(shameless plug alert) A 10-chapter book I wrote around this topic along with tools and scenarios for parents to consider.  Got to pay the bills some way!

 

When Smart Homes Attack

Editor’s note: The following is a recreation of actual events that happened on January 16, 2018 in Austin, TX. No one was harmed as a result of the events, save for some emotional scarring.

This past weekend, I decided to install a new wireless router. While this seems like a fairly mundane task of the 21st century family, what follows is an actual account of the events that transpired as a result of this.

First, some back story.

The last time I changed our home wireless router was 2012. I remember it well. It was a much more peaceful time then. Wireless connectivity was really only needed for my laptop and phone on occasion to save on data. We frolicked in the fields, played video games and watched cable television.

As what happened next will prove, present times are not so innocent and simple.

10:06AM – I started the morning by unplugging my gerbil-wheel-powered first-gen Netgear router that I bought at Radio Shack.

10:07AM – I began to look through the manual for my new, fancier, ultra-strong bandwidth system that’s all but guaranteed to make your skin tingle when you walk by it (It’s called something like the RoBoWiFi 3000 or the like).

10:19AM – A cold chill began to fill our home as I fumbled through the various cables and plugs under my desk.

10:22AM – The chattering teeth of my family alerted me to a major problem. You see, we use a Nest thermostat to control our house temperature. Without wifi, it had gone off-line and in “away” mode thus shutting off our heater during the coldest day in Austin since 1884. Suddenly, I knew the pressure was one to get this new router set up.

10:27AM – I went to turn on the lamp near my desk to get some better light and nothing happened. Last year, I had installed a Twist speaker bulb that was controlled by my phone through our wireless. It turns out I didn’t set it into an off-line mode, essentially, making the bulb useless.

10:31AM – I hear a tremendous shriek from our living room. We had cut cable a couple of months ago, which has been great, but also meant that any type of TV watching experience was now reliant on a combination of Chromecast, FireStick, AppleTV and aluminum foil antenna.  My kids plans for snow-day of watching every episode of “Dragon’s Edge” was now interrupted.

10:33AM – Shortly after scrambling for something to distract them under their heavy blankets, I mindlessly hand them their iPad. One problem, their favorite Animal Jam app required network access. This was getting serious.

10:35AM – “Alexa, add firewood to the shopping list.”

10:35:08 AM – Alexa’s response, “Sorry, I can’t connect to the network right now and are therefor a useless black monolith sitting on your kitchen counter.”

10:37AM (or so I thought) – I checked my watch to see how long we had been without Wifi.  As chilly breath became visible out of my mouth, I realized my Smart watch no longer had connectivity.

The world was ending in the Hooker household in little less than an hour.

I saw my life flashing before my eyes but realized it was only the flashing amber light of the new router attempting to connect. Years later, when they become adults, I imagine my kids will be telling their families how hard life was for them. They’ll tell them about the time their father nearly killed them when he pulled the wifi during a snow storm. The struggle was real.

Back to reality.

10:55AM – I got the wifi back online and quickly connected all our mobile devices, laptops, Nest, security systems, Alexa, light bulbs and even our Crockpot. (Yes, our Crockpot has wifi, don’t judge!)  The whole scene played out like that scene in Jurassic Park where Samuel Jackson was frantically trying to get systems back online. (see side bar)

Reflection

This whole experience made me reflect at how quickly we have slow-boiled ourselves into a world where we rely on constant connection. My family owns a  lake cabin and have recently been debating whether or not to put wireless access there. Currently it’s equipped with all the essentials of life: An Atari, board games, a campfire, and woods. Life seems different there.

Not better or worse…just different.

Today I came across a short story by Ray Bradbury called The Veldt.  He wrote this story in 1950 and essentially outlines a future world where our homes are uber-automated with virtual walls, virtual smells and experiences that feed off of our thoughts. Our bathtubs bathe us, our toothbrushes work automatically, and we don’t have to life a finger to fold laundry. (cue the Laundry-folding robot from last week’s CES event). I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say, life takes an unexpected turn for this family. (here’s the cheesy 80’s video version for those of you non-readers)

In a curious turn of events, I remembered one of my favorite Deadmau5 songs is called “The Veldt” and discovered the video is essentially a shout out to this Ray Bradbury short story. After you read the story, watch the video below.

I would love you to leave your comments below and hear your thoughts on what this all means for us as parents, as humans, and as a society.  I don’t see this future getting any slower for us, but I think an awareness of the pros and cons of automaticity should happen as we connect more appliances to our homes.

Hold on to your butts!

 

 

Digital Zombie Series: “Notifistraction” Disease

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness.  In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us.  Imagine it – you are hunting and gathering food when all the sudden, you happen upon a pond with fresh water.  You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…

SNAP!!

You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you.  It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).  Following  your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death.  When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind.  “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts).  Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted.  Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness.  In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home.  To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you are in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place.  By our very nature, we are victims of distraction.  Distraction causes our brain to alter their original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced.  Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly).  Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts.  All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand.  I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause.  Despite our best efforts to focus our brains still revert back to the stone age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it.  A local cyber-psychologist  here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications.  He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us.  This can be either mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video for example.  That connection creates endorphins which is subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of this rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning.

A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something.  That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted make Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions.  Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch.  I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes.  It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch.  Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease.  Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city.  If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts –

I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls.  While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about how good of mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run.  Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way)  My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away – 

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car.  Notice I didn’t say “while driving”.  This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me.  Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” –

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

When working on a project, I employ the “Pomodoro Technique“.  I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project.  Here’s how it works.  You write down a goal or project that you need to work on.  Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc for a period of 25 minutes.  When the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25 minute period.  I even employed this technique while writing this post!

Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done?  The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone?  You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and…..squirrels!

Now….what was I saying?

 Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.