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Technology breaks are key to our health

June 14, 2016 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Research psychologist Larry Rosen shares his insight on the impacts of technology use at a public talk at Barnett House on May 26.

While modern technology may be increasing our connectivity, growing evidence suggests that it’s also leading to a loss of connectedness and making us distracted.

This was the overarching theme of a public talk by Michael Rich and Larry Rosen, two of the foremost researchers on the impacts of technology use on people and relationships. The speakers shared their insights before a gathering of about 125 people at Barnett House on May 26.

Rich, a Harvard pediatrics professor who studies the effects of media use on children, shared the findings of a study revealing that half of teens and a quarter of parents feel addicted to technology. This same study found that 41 per cent of teens and 75 per cent of parents feel that the other party is distracted by electronic devices. Finally, 72 per cent of teens and 48 per cent of parents feel a need to respond immediately to incoming electronic messages.

“Think about how that disrupts our relationships and our connection with each other,” Rich said. “Devices that increase our connectivity functionally disconnect us.”

Rich also shared data from another recent study that painted a picture of distracted parenting. The study revealed that 73 per cent of parents use electronic devices while eating with their children, which results in 20 per cent fewer verbal interactions and 39 per cent fewer non-verbal interactions.


That same study showed that 30 per cent of playground parents are distracted by screens, leading to a threefold increase in the likelihood of their children taking physical risks.

“One of the things that we might want to think about is not stimulating ourselves every second of every day,” Rich said.

To dial down the stimulation, Rich advocates for taking a “digital Sabbath” one day each week. The suggestion tends to draw shocked reactions (including throughout the Barnett House audience), but Rich said he’s had many hyper-connected people test out the idea.

“When they try it, they feel liberated,” he said. “We need the space to find ourselves and to centre ourselves and to be present with ourselves and for each other.”

Electronic presence is distracting
Rosen, a research psychologist from California State University whose specialties include multitasking, generational differences and distraction, said several studies have demonstrated that the mere presence of an electronic device is distracting to us.

One study had people conversing with each other and rating each other’s trustworthiness. When there was a phone nearby (any random phone), people rated each other as less trustworthy than when a similarly sized notebook was nearby.

“The phone is really the problem, not what’s in the phone, but it’s the phone itself,” Rosen said.

Another study tested student performance while students were studying with a phone ringing in the background that they couldn’t answer. Predictably, the students retained less of the study material and were more stressed. When there was a phone nearby that wasn’t ringing, students performed worse on difficult tasks but did just as well on simple tasks.

Rosen recommends telling kids that they “can have a phone around, only when they’re doing something very simple.”

Rosen cited other evidence that media use itself is associated with poorer health in children and youth, even when accounting for exercise and nutrition.

First among his recommendations for fostering health: time away from technology.

“I’m not necessarily an advocate of 24 hours away, but they need time away from technology,” he said.

Taking time away from technology trains the brain to stop producing anxiety-laden chemicals and instils much-needed calmness, he said. It also enables children to practise creative thinking and face-to-face communication skills.

“It’s really important to ensure that your kids ... actually look at your face and learn what cues mean,” he said.

For young children, Rosen recommends that technology be used at a ratio of about 1:5, meaning five hours away from technology for every hour spent using it. As children get older and their need to use electronics for school increases, that ratio can gradually shift toward an upper limit of 5:1.

“It never goes to zero, meaning all technology all the time,” he said. ❚

Ongoing research

These public talks were part of a larger research colloquium that brought together decision makers and influencers from across society to consider the extent to which technologies are shaping the minds and bodies of children and youth.

The invitational event, which took place May 27, is part of the ongoing Growing Up Digital study, a partnership between the Alberta Teachers’ Association, the University of Alberta and Harvard University, which is researching the impacts of media use by children and youth.

"Technologies impact all of us, not just students, in both promising and perilous ways. We have to better understand how we can navigate a rapidly changing digital world," said Phil McRae, an ATA researcher who is heading up the Association’s involvement in the study.

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