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 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?

Author: connectedfamilybytes

I am PhD candidate researching how Australian (Melbourne) families interact with each other using the Internet, mobile phones and television. My purpose is to gain understanding of how these technologies are used in the home, and to investigate the dynamic interplay between family members' and technology use in their everyday activities. The focus is on exploring how technologies facilitate the ways in which family members communicate and spend time with each other. This project is supported by the Smart Services Co-operative Research Centre, and is being conducted through RMIT University’s Graduate School of Business and Law.

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