The word guiding our focus for December is attention. There are so many facets we could explore with regards to attention- how to pay better attention ourselves, how to support attention in our children and students, where to direct our attention, the impact of technology on attention, the list goes on.
Let’s first consider the word itself, why it deserves our… attention. Our days are full to the brim with thoughts, ideas, stimuli, distractions, intentions, concerns, ambitions, and all day long we make decisions (often not intentionally) about where we allow our focus to flow. When we intentionally direct our attention we have the power to influence the way we think, feel and act.
This month’s guest blogger, Jamie Mandel, is an experienced occupational therapist, mother, and Get Ready facilitator. Below Jamie reflects upon an experience she and her family shared last year that shined a light on the impact of screen time on the family’s ability to pay attention to one another. Thank you so much for sharing Jamie!
In these modern times, it is virtually impossible to live without screen time. There is no doubt that technology has made a number of tremendously positive impacts on our society and our lives. However, anyone who has a cell phone or tablet knows that screen time is highly addictive. In spite of our family’s best intentions, screen time consistently pulled us apart and prevented us from being fully present with each other.
While my husband and I have tried to raise our two children mindfully and to be present as much as possible with them, screen time has played an omnipresent role in all of our lives. For us as parents, it is texting with friends, family and co-workers, checking email for work, making plans for our children and often getting lost on social media. For our kids, it is snapchat, instagram, group texts, trivia games and more. Although we have tried not to use cell phones, tablets, etc. as a babysitter, and are conscious of not bringing devices to the table for meals, there is no denying that each of us spends a lot of time online. In spite of our best efforts and determination, for a long time we grossly underestimated the impact that these devices had on our ability to pay attention to each other and to connect as a family.
After our then 10 year old son, Eli, suffered a mild concussion last year, we quickly learned the power of signing off in this age of around the clock digital connections. Once the doctor assured us that there was no lasting damage and that Eli would be fine, we felt immediate relief. However, when the doctor informed us that Eli would have to refrain from all screen time for two weeks (to give his brain time to heal), that relief quickly transformed into a mix of dread and anxiety over how we would possibly keep him busy.
As a pediatric Occupational Therapist, I have long understood the importance of limiting device time for children and adults. As 21st century adults, the reality is that our devices are central to all of our lives, but far too often serve as more of a distraction than a benefit. Eli’s concussion presented our family with a challenge and an opportunity - to reshape our lives for a temporary period of time by reconsidering just what kind of a role technology would play in our family. Keeping Eli off screen time was a no brainer - after all, the doctor ordered it. But we had a choice whether to complain about the difficulty of Eli losing his electronic babysitter, or to embrace the opportunity to fill his time - and ours - with meaningful off-screen activities.
So here’s what happened: To our great surprise, almost immediately, Eli welcomed the chance to plug back into the family and play board games, cards, read and even help with household chores. At the same time, my husband and I also consciously put down our devices as much as possible. We played together as a family more than we had in a long time, and enjoyed longer conversations than usual. With the distraction of social media and online games removed, we quickly remembered just how connecting it was as a family not to have our attention divided between the people in front of us and the screen in our hands. Most surprising of all, Eli embraced his new freedom and often remarked just how liberating and fun it was to be off screen time. And while he thoroughly enjoyed the “old fashioned” activities that filled the time that used to be spent online, he clearly loved the added attention he got when we put down our devices as well. He often remarked how nice it was to have our undivided focus.
Eli’s two week hiatus from screen time ended around nine months ago. As much as he enjoyed his time off devices, he was not about to swear them off for good once the doctor gave him clearance. We did not push this either, knowing it is simply unrealistic - if not impossible - to stay device-free in this ever-connected society. Instead, we have tried to be mindful about when and how we use our screen time. We recognize just how easy it is to get sucked into our devices, only to resurface a long time later completely disconnected from the people around us.
Now, we consciously choose to put each other first when we are together. That means putting our devices down and playing together. Whether board games, going for walks, playing sports or music, or just talking together, we make sure that we are mindfully connecting with each other, rather than being ruled by our phones. Of course, we do not always get the balance right. But we are mindful that when we feel disconnected, it is a clue that we probably need to put our devices down. When technology is used to enhance the enjoyment of our real life activity - like taking a photo on our phones when we are out for a walk - then we are controlling our devices and not the other way around. And that allows us to remain present and connected with each other. The problem becomes when that one photo turns into a quick check of email followed by a few texts and social media posts, then before we know it significant time has passed and it can be difficult to reconnect.
On Thanksgiving Day, our family participated in a local five mile run. After the race, Eli remarked how nice it was to be device-free for the morning. We hear this all the time when we are plugged into each other as a family and not glued to our phones. In our case, it took Eli suffering a concussion for us to recognize the importance of unplugging. It is our hope that our story will help everyone - kids and adults - to be mindful of the role technology plays in their lives, and never to lose sight of the importance of being present with the people around us.