Is technology a family distraction?

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“I feel like I am being constantly bombarded with information,” say many of my friends and colleagues. My partner suffers with being over stimulated by the vast amount of visual and auditory information he is surrounded by. He struggles with being able to turn his mind off in an ‘always on and plugged in’ environment. Here are some facts that support this state of mind as reported in the New York Times story from a series on Your Brain on Computers:

“In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.”

This non-stop interactivity can result in information overload which is distracting, and in some cases, an alarming and potentially dangerous experience (checking emails and text messages whilst driving?). Is it any wonder we feel so busy a lot of the time?

My research with families also alludes to a sense of ‘busy-ness’ and urgency about being available 24/7 due to technology being ‘always on.’ The blurring of family-work boundaries, and the (often unrecognised) need to respond immediately to requests or demands made via email or text messages, adds to the stress and anxiety experienced by some parents and other family members. With the increased availability and affordability of information and communication (ICT) devices, can we presume increased efficiencies and greater ‘downtime?’ Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the case. We don’t seem to notice how stressed we are until we ‘unplug’ ourselves from the devices.

Having the Internet and its’ associated functionality persistently accessible seems to generate a state of perpetual (inter)activity. We feel like we are in constant motion (even if we are sitting down at our computers)! Exacerbating this state of affairs is the ease with which we can be distracted. A quick search for specific information on the Internet can turn into a delightful, but sometimes unrelated journey where we need to remind ourselves “What was I looking up?!” Okay – maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone – but it certainly happens to me! Having wandered through cyberspace on an interesting and thought-provoking adventure, it begs the question: was the time well spent? Or, has the experience added to my stress because I have not achieved my original aims? I do not have a clear answer – sometimes the voyage is fruitful and provides unexpected and insightful outputs; on other occasions I need to ‘go back to the drawing board’ and revisit my intentions as I have veered off course.

This phenomenon has a name: wilfing (what was I looking for?) and was identified in a survey conducted in the UK in a reuters article claiming 2 out of 3 Britons admit to occasional wilfing (aimless Web surfing). A quarter of those surveyed (the study was sponsored by moneysupermarket.com) spend more than 30 percent of their time (equivalent to two full working days every month) on the Internet surfing without any purpose. This has been labelled as ‘lost time’ and apparently men are the greatest culprits of the activity. Shopping sites are also considered the most distracting sites. The underlying implication of the story is that while people log on with a purpose, they are easily distracted and then seem to aimlessly search in a barren waste land. Is the Internet the only space that this occurs? Or is it that the Internet presents such diverse functionality – perhaps the landscape is lush with potential ideas, information, entertainment and relational connectivity? I suffer from the ‘wilf’ factor on many occasions – but I must admit that despite the feeling of lost time, many serendipitous discoveries have sometimes been made in those times. The distraction from the task at hand however, can lead to feeling stressed.

I know that I am not alone in this experience. I think there is an underlying sense of stress and anxiety as we multi-task through our days on our various devices. I wonder if there is a relationship between the quantity, and frequency of use of ICTs, and the level of stress and sense of ‘busy-ness’ felt by families. Does constant access to information (and the potential for information overload) influence a family’s sense of ‘busy-ness?’ And who in the family is the more stressed: the parents, or the kids? The New York Times has published a series on  Your Brain on Computers that address some of the issues I have identified, albeit in the American context.

An interesting article in the series about  parenting and being plugged in looks at how parental use of technology impacts their children. Kids are now competing with technology for their parents’ attention – there are complaints made by children that their parents are too busy texting or in cyberspace, and not being with their kids. From the ‘mouths of babes’ I have heard statements such as: “Mum would rather spend time on the Internet than talking to me,” “Mum is always texting,” or “Dad is always at the computer.” The contrary is also true – where kids are immersed in Facebook and their mobile phones rather than engaging with the family. Quality time with family seems to be turning into ‘distracted time.’ Are these distractions more embedded in families that struggle to relate to each other? Or are we just overloaded with technology?

Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times (Ugly toll of technology) spoke with experts, who identified some of the signs of technology overload (June 6, 2010):

7 signs of technology overload
1. Do you always check your e-mail before doing other things?
2. Do you often find yourself anticipating the next time you’ll be online?
3. When you’re online and someone needs you, do you usually say “just a few more minutes” before stopping?
4. Have you ever lied about or tried to hide how long you’ve been online?
5. Have you ever chosen to spend time online rather than going out with others?
6. Does going online lift you from a depressed or nervous mood?
7. Do others in your life often complain about the amount of time you spend using technology?

How many of these behaviours to you engage in? How is it affecting your family?

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Parenting in the Facebook Age

With over 500 million users (Facebook statistics), Facebook is clearly embraced worldwide. The social networking site is increasingly prevalent in of the world of families, and becoming more of a parental concern. A survey by AOL (AOL survey 2010) alerts us to the fact that teens using Facebook do not personally know all the friends they have accepted. When you look at some of the figures in terms of the sheer number of ‘friends’ some of these teenagers have got – I wonder if it is possible to know them all? My stepdaughters at 13 and 15 years of age have almost 400, and over 700 ‘friends’ respectively (and these figures do not remain static). My own daughter presents the polar opposite experience: she has no Facebook friends – she absolutely refuses to start a Facebook account (and let me be honest here, there is a part of me that is very proud and supportive of her social networking rebellion – LOL).

I hear stories from some of the teens that I have researched, and from conversations with my own daughter’s friends about how they use the social networking site. Part of the use is related to filling in time – ‘doing something while there is nothing to do.’ Or having it on in the background – an ambient reminder that they are connected to other folk that are also doing homework, listening to music, and stalking their favourite friends (or ex-friends) on Facebook! The main reason underlying the activity is to be connected to their peers (or at least avoid being ostracised); remaining in the loop; and keeping up with what is going on at all times. Is there also a social imperative to accumulate as many friends as possible?

Is this what social networking is about for teens – connecting with as many people as possible? There is no ubiquitous response to such a question. Every individual’s experience is unique – but there are emerging patterns. According to Facebook statistics the average number of friends per person is 130. For teens this figure can go much higher.

When I talk to kids about Facebook, one of their first questions to me is: “How many friends do you have?” When I announce that I have fewer than 100, I can see them rolling their eyes (as I have exposed my ‘loser’ status due to my apparent lack of friends). I candidly inform them that I have declined numerous friend requests (and I admitted to ‘unfriending’ a few, thus making my list even smaller; and then there are those that ‘unfriend’ me). They look at me incredulously and ask, “Why would you do that?” And I tell them that I prefer to connect with people who I actually know, and am not merely distantly acquainted with (among other reasons). This seems counter-intuitive to their own need to collect as many friends as possible to develop a superior (revered?) status among their peers.

I cannot imagine knowing such a vast number of people – certainly not as ‘friends.’ Though I can attest to ‘knowing’ a considerable quantity of people, due to the nature of my work – teaching and researching at a university exposes you to hundreds of students, staff and other colleagues. I could also include all the people I went to primary school with, high school, and university (undergrad and postgrad). Are they my friends on Facebook? No. I am not even a Facebook friend with my PhD supervisor – that would be too much like being friends with a parent (and my own parents are not at all interested in joining the Facebook revolution)! But that is my unique experience. The teen experience according to the AOL/Nielsen survey was that over half of them claimed they did not personally know all of their Facebook friends, while the parents knew half or less of their kids friends online.

Clearly parents are concerned about the Facebook phenomenon. The AOL survey identified that 70% of parents are friends with their kids on Facebook. However, almost a third of teens desired to ‘unfriend’ their parents, with twice as many teens wanting to ditch mum as a friend rather than dad (although mum is more likely to have a Facebook profile than dad). For 41% of teens, getting access to Facebook was conditional on being mum’s ‘friend.’ The study was jointly conducted with Nielsen and surveyed over 1,000 parents, and 500 children between the ages 13 to 17 years in an online poll. The remaining 59% is what I wonder about? Do their parents know that they are on Facebook? If 30% of teens want to ‘unfriend’ their parents, can we assume there are 70% of teens that are content with the status quo? There are cases where the child requests the friendship of the parent, and that of the parents’ friends. This could be a strategic move to populate the friend list quickly.

While teens are exploring their identity and gaining independence via social networking sites, having parents monitor their actions can be a disincentive to post inappropriate comments. Alternatively, Facebook provides a window to information that is otherwise unknown to parents. “I didn’t know my son was in a relationship until I saw that his Facebook status had changed” said one parent to me about being ‘friends’ with their son. The ‘friending’ issue has stimulated the production of a variety of sites including http://www.myparentsjoinedfacebook.com, that receive numerous examples from teens (and others’), about embarrassing comments posted by parents on their Facebook pages. There is even a YouTube video on the topic: My mum’s on Facebook! which has received over 1.2 million views! The web also provides information on parenting issues: Facebook tips for parents.

So what is a modern-day parent to do? Is Facebook a phase that your teen will grow out of (and how many years will it last)? Or will they move to tweeting?