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Are Digital Tools Diminishing Your Son’s Ability to Think?

Think of any common tool: a hammer, a knife, or a compass. When used properly, tools yield amazing results. You can build something, carve a piece wood, or find your way home. Digital tools should be no different. They should help boys grow their minds. They should help them gain knowledge and facilitate new ways of seeing the world. Sounds great but there’s a problem. Unlike a hammer, digital tools intrude into the mind. They evoke strong emotions. They tamper with neurological reward systems. Some who study addiction are now saying they can hijack the brain. At the very least, they are designed to keep people’s attention for as long as humanly possible. Boys seem to be the most susceptible.

Over the years, I’ve observed a disturbing trend. It is also happening at the national level. Boys (and young men) have become the heaviest screen users. When you break down where their attention goes, you see that they spend more and more of their waking day on digital, high-tech devices. Some of that time is for school; but mostly it’s for entertainment and, as many have told me, “when there’s nothing better to do.” They build endless virtual worlds on “Minecraft.” They spend endless hours achieving scores on games like “Madden NFL.” As the hours rack up, they are losing ground in building and achieving real-life thinking skills.

Case in point. Young men in the US are seriously falling behind educationally. It started sometime in the early 1980’s, when college acceptance rates had reached the same levels for men and women. It took women many years to get to that achievement, to break down barriers, and it was long overdue. But since the early 1980’s, women have continued to make gains, while the acceptance rates for young men decline. That’s not the only problem. Many young men aren’t able to achieve their degree. Young men are twenty-two percent more likely to drop out of college, and this trend is expected to get worse.

Are screens to blame? Not entirely. Certainly there are many factors, but watching the trend play out in front of me over twenty-five years I can confidently say that heavy screen use is a major culprit. Boys see digital tools as mostly for entertainment. It’s stopping many young men from thinking for themselves, doing for themselves, and growing up. Every hour spent glued to a screen is a lost opportunity to develop thinking skills. How are young men to think independently, think critically, delay gratification, prioritize, and develop the social skills they will need in the complex real world if thousands of hours are lived in virtual worlds?

Fortunately, it’s never too late to help boys and young men improve. If your son is a heavy digital user and you’re concerned, here’s a path forward.

When meeting boys in middle school (and older), I pose simple questions. You can do the same. What kind of technology guy do you think you are? What type do you want to be? That often invites a confused look, so I explain: There are Digital Tool Users and there are Digital Tools… Which are you? The first category is a young man who knows the power of media, uses the Internet thoughtfully, knows how to limit exposure to screens, and sees technology more as a tool than as a source of entertainment. He respects his digital tools, knowing that like a knife, technology can cut both ways. The second category is a young man who is in over his head. He’s drowning in technology. His digital tools are doing the thinking for him. He’s become a tool of the technology. I explain this isn’t a new problem. Thoreau prophetically warned a century and a half ago that Men have become the tools of their tools. Today, the tools are digital. They’re doing our thinking for us. We’re growing dependent on them.

This grabs their attention. Boys, and especially young men, don’t like to be told what to think about or how they should think. They have pride and are competitive. They don’t like seeing themselves as passive. They don’t like the idea that they’re losing ground while others move ahead. The trick is to help boys and young men own that message. It needs to belong to them and not something we force upon them. I don’t push. I never tell them what they should do or how to behave, unless they ask. Instead, I tell them that they are ultimately in control. This resonates with want they want. I tell them that ultimately they are in control of where their attention goes. They have choices. They decide what can enter their minds. They can gain power by blocking out mindless, over-stimulating information. They don’t have to let algorithms,  programs, and seductive graphics (designed by others) decide what’s in their heads. They don’t have to think about what others want them to think about, unless it’s their choice. Instead, we talk about making space in their day, space in their heads to reflect, to be more mindful, to think logically when it serves them, and ultimately, to start thinking more for themselves.

That’s the kind of men they all tell me they want to be.

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Are you getting Faked Out by devices?

In a recent post, we talked about kids listening to music while they do their homework. If you do allow music during homework, beware, of the “fake out!” Many kids and teens tell me they digitally cheat – unbeknownst to their parents – when there are iPads, smartphones, or laptops in arms reach. They can switch on multiple screens, steal a few minutes on YouTube, and most distracting, read and respond to the constant volley of texts and tweets and pictures coming from social media. It’s all only a finger tap away. And when parents check in, their children close the screens down stealthily and shine an innocent smile.

It’s not all their fault. We do it too. These digital platforms are designed to keep everyone – especially children with less developed self-control skills – on screen for as long as possible. That’s how these companies make their revenue and profits. It’s a business. That’s fine, but we need to be aware. They are designed to be irresistible and to pull our limited, precious attention (and brain disk space) off from what we really need to be focusing or thinking about. Which in this case, is homework.

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Homework and Music – Do They Mix?

My children have great grades.  They insist upon studying with music.  What are your thoughts on that?

Generally, my rule is this: There shouldn’t be competing-distracting sounds or visuals going on when studying. But, there are some people who actually seem to focus a bit better with light “background” music. It should be low volume, preferably without words (lyrics are language and tend to distract more than instrumental alone). The bottom line is if your son or daughter is doing well academically and there are no complaints or concerns from their teacher(s), then it’s probably fine. If there is a problem, go back to basics. Quiet, distraction-free environments have worked best for thousands of years to help people think more deeply. Interestingly. some parents have asked their kids to try listening to classical music (which research shows can improve performance), and then switching to anything else when homework is complete. Beyond classical, maybe Jazz, show tunes, new age, or other forms of inspiring music can be be listened to while doing homework. Worth a try!

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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?

Always consider your child’s developmental age when deciding how much screen time is appropriate. At young ages, adhere to the more conservative pediatric guidelines that call for very strict limits. That’s no more than a few minutes a day of exposure. This youngest developmental period involves the most rapid neurological growth. During this period learning and experiencing the world shouldn’t be digital or virtual. It needs to be truly social and involve real-life play with real objects that one can see, touch, manipulate, move about, and combine in novel ways. What these youngest children see and do will directly impact their brain growth and plot out development for years to come.

From three to six years old, some screen time each day is fine. Try to stick with educational TV programming of about an hour a day or less, and try to find programs that have real people, real stories, and aren’t hyper-stimulating or over-animated. Start with shows like Mr. Rogers Neighborhood as an excellent model. Such programs may feel a bit outdated, but that’s what young minds need. Calm dialog, routine, repetition, familiar faces, and people interacting in positive social ways. Educational apps on tablets and other screens are occasionally fun, but don’t get seduced into false promises that they will make your young child smarter and learn faster. Studies show that while some children appear to be learning quickly with these electronic platforms, most end up in the same place academically whether screens are used or not. Some researchers have discovered they may in fact do harm. Learning is compromised when it’s done on screens for certain tasks, like reading ebooks versus words on real paper. Heavy screen exposure also runs the risk of ADHD, near-sightedness, learning disabilities, sleep problems, and poor physical health from being sedentary. Too much screen time, even if it’s believed to be educational, may be conditioning young minds to crave faster and faster stimulation. They can become intolerant in real-life when results don’t magically appear with a click or tap. It can lay a foundation for something very worrisome — an addictive need for screens that is starting to show up in some children in the elementary school years.

Once kids reach elementary school years, seven or eight years old, things get very complicated for parents who are trying to manage screen exposure. Schools are introducing more screens into the classroom. More teachers are encouraging Internet and keyboarding as part of homework. More gaming products and media programming are aggressively marketed to this age group. This is the era when I tell parents to start controlling when (not just how much) screen time is used. If it’s for entertainment, screens should only be available once homework and any other responsibilities are completed. If possible, have a set hour later in the day for screens so that kids don’t think of screens as always available and the go-to-activity when they are bored or alone. No screens if possible within an hour of bedtime.

By middle school and up, watch for social isolation, disinterest in activities, chronic irritability, and sleep problems. These may be signs that your preteen or teen is overdosing on screen time. Boys tend to get heavily involved in gaming while girls spend more time on social media. Watch for teens falling into the trap of seeing themselves – and defining their self-worth – through scores on video games or social media. If your teenager is doing well in high school, keeping up with homework, participating in sports and/or positive activities, and prefers meeting up with friends to hanging indoors alone in front of a screen, I tell parents that they can loosen the rules on screen time. The goal is for teenagers to learn how to monitor and manage their screen time before they leave high school.

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Are you spending wisely?

A friend shared this:

Each of us is in possession of a magical bank. We just can’t seem to see it. The MAGICAL BANK is TIME! 

Each morning we awaken to receive 86,400 seconds as a gift of life, and when we go to sleep at night, any remaining time is NOT credited to us. 
What we haven’t lived up that day is forever lost. 
Yesterday is forever gone. 

Each morning the account is refilled, but the bank can dissolve your account at any time….WITHOUT WARNING. 

SO, what will YOU do with your 86,400 seconds? 

Aren’t they worth so much more than the same amount in dollars? 
Think about that, and always think of this: 
Enjoy every second of your life, because time races by so much quicker than you think. 

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