Distractions and Engagement

Everywhere I go now there are TV screens. In the doctor’s waiting room, at the car repairers, in restaurants, at airports. Everywhere. It’s as though we are being told that we don’t know how to amuse ourselves with our own thoughts or with a book.

I remember the great conversations we had as a family when our kids were small. We would go out to dinner every now and then and the new environment, the people around us, the occasion itself were spurs to some great discussions, lots of laughter and questions, questions, questions from the kids. They were curious and intrigued by everything. We relished the opportunities to interact with them and get them thinking about what they saw and heard.

I was in a restaurant last week and at the adjacent table was a family of five. The parents had their eyes pretty much glued to the TV screen on the wall in front of them, two of the kids were profoundly involved with their phones and the third just sat gazing into the middle distance. What else could he do? There was no one to talk to.

The disturbing thing was that my phone was sitting on the table on front of me, and it buzzed. My hand went almost instinctively to pick it up, to check out what piece of utter trivia or earth shattering importance was waiting for me. We were in the lull between having placed our order and receiving it. That space where you dip your bread in the olive oil and balsamic and try not to take too much edge off your appetite. It was the time when you check out the other diners, rearrange your napkin, ponder whether dessert is a likely option tonight. I knew if I picked up my phone, my companion would probably pick up his and there we would be, both tied by our eyeballs to our phones.  Conversation potential zilch!

When did we forget to talk to each other? When did the world around us decide that we could no longer be occupied with our own thoughts and the thoughts of others? Why are we allowing this to happen?

I think we are in real danger of forgetting how to engage – to engage with ourselves and with others. I fear that we are becoming immersed in a sea of distractions that tug us away from one another, and away from what goes on in our own heads. On our phones we flick from email, to twitter, to facebook, and back again. On our computers we hit link after link, scanning articles, leaving them half read and hardly considered as we move on to the next fascinating throw away tag line.

I think we need to learn a whole new set of manners about smart phone use in public. I also believe we need to teach our kids and ourselves to resist the temptation to flit about like intellectual butterflies from one distraction to another, from one hyperlink to the next. We need to teach our kids and ourselves how to engage.

It is possible to set an Ipad so that the opportunities for browsing are limited. With ‘Guided Access’ the teacher or parent can restrict usage to a single application and control which features are available. If your kids are using Ipads at home or at school for a specific purpose you can encourage them to stay on task, in focus and not be tempted to flutter off to the next pretty flower.

My son tells me of a great smartphone game when groups go out to dinner together. Everyone puts their phone in a pile in the center of the table, one on top of the other. The first person to pick up a phone should it ring or buzz has to buy a round of drinks.

Students easily become overloaded by the sheer volume of sources available to them when researching on the internet. Instead of allowing them to jump from source to source, teach them how to thoroughly investigate one or two. Show them how to determine the source of the information, encourage them to read to the end, ask them to compare and evaluate two sources on the same subject, for example www.crazydogtheoriesonhealth.com and www.mayoclinic.com or www.theearthreallyisflat.org and www.nationalgeographic.com.

Start a movement! The Bring Back Conversations Movement. Create a T shirt. Ask for a table where you can sit with your back to the TV in a restaurant. Design a bumper sticker. Start a conversation group.  Do whatever it takes to encourage people to communicate with clarity and precision and to listen with empathy and understanding.

In the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman I discovered that simply placing children in desegregated schools doesn’t appear to lead to greater racial interaction. Young children when dressed in either a red or a blue t-shirt at school will eventually choose their friends from those kids wearing the same color shirt. It seems to be that only when we talk about something can we begin to influence behavior. We need to talk to our kids about the need for conversation. We need to teach them how to participate. We should be encouraging them to explore the contents of their own mind and the minds of others and then to share their ideas.

It isn’t one thing or another. We should be teaching our kids how to be sociable users of social media. We should also be teaching them how to interact and communicate without always needing an electronic gadget as an intermediary.


Filed under Thinking

3 responses to “Distractions and Engagement

  1. Hi Pat,
    A few little things…
    With regards to focusing their research – Spot on. If our little munchkins are researching we will check it out sites first, and add up the best sites on their grade blog so we know they are only going to be accessing quality. If they are older, well then for sure we would be investigating what makes a reputable site WITH the kids!
    Now onto distraction….
    I had a friend the other day who posted on her twitter from a restaurant that it will be a ‘peaceful and quiet’ night at dinner, proceeded by a photo of her 2 kids at the table glued to the ipad sitting on the dinner table….
    It really frustrates me the amount of people who think it’s great parenting to give their kid an ipad or iphone to simply keep them quiet at dinner or when out and about. It’s funny too how desensitised we become with regards to this as well. I remember being horrified a few years ago when I saw a family pull out the portable DVD player at a restaurant for the kids and now, It’s not uncommon to see kids, eyes down trailing their parents pushing buttons or flicking through apps while they are shopping.
    I’m no perfect parent, and never profess to be!! But to be honest, our little munchkin is 2 and a half and he knows how to use the iphone and the ipad. BUT, he also knows there is a time and place and it’s only to be used if he asked or as a treat. It’s not a babysitter and it doesn’t replace the value of good play and conversation with us, his PARENTS, about the world around him! 🙂
    I totally agree, where has the conversation gone?? I remember the times as a kids that having the TV on during dinner was only on special occasions when something in the world was happening eg: olympics etc.

    How on earth can you remain open to continuous learning and listen with understanding and empathy when the only ‘thing’ the little munchkins are engaged in is with a one sided game or movie?? Frustrates me no end.
    Let’s get these bumper stickers going Pat – How about a billboard??!?!

  2. Bonnie Griffith

    All I can say really is Amen! When my daughter comes home to visit, she has conversations with me but this is punctuated with glancing at her cell phone and typing replies. On occasion I will politely ask her to put down the phone and give me her full attention. She seems only able to do so for a couple of minutes. On another evening one of her male friends came by to help me with a chore and stayed for dinner. I taught him to play cribbage and he texted my daughter several times telling her about the experience. I told him she had not actually answered when I had called her over the last two days, but she was happy that he was entertaining me and even beating me at his first guided attempt at the game. I simply found myself fascinated by and slightly concerned that cell phones, texting, tweeting and all manner of technology has changed our children’s lives so completely in less than a generation. I told the young man to tell my daughter to call her mother, and she did.

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