The Era of Digital Distraction

When I was a child in small-town West Virginia, there weren’t many options for entertainment after school or on weekends: I could walk to a friend’s house. I could watch TV on our 13 fuzzy channels. Or I could read. And so I read, and read, and read—hours and even whole days would pass with no interruptions. I didn’t have any choice but to concentrate.

Nowadays children are trying to learn in a world full of distractions. There are the distractions they want (TV shows, video games, text messages from friends), and the distractions that find them no matter what (notifications from apps, mom talking on the phone in the next room, text messages from family). A kid getting a few hours to read or work on homework with no interruptions sounds like something from another era.

For kids aged two to five, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour per day of “high-quality” programming. “The only good research [on kids’ TV shows] is on PBS programming,” says Dr. Cameron, an expert in early childhood education at University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education and the author of the upcoming Hands On, Minds On. “Not all screen time is the same—there was a study that showed that preschoolers who watched Sponge Bob Square Pants had deficits in attention” compared to kids who watched a slower-paced show or spent time drawing. The frenetic pace of many cartoons disrupts kids’ ability to concentrate. So that hour of screen time should be something like Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers.

For older kids, limiting mindless texting, browsing, chatting, and game playing can be difficult, especially when they have their own smartphones. But parents can still set limits—Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, recommends designating screen-free time, like dinner, for both kids and adults, and taking the phone away during homework hours. The AAP suggests keeping some “media-free zones” in the house, like bedrooms.

For teenagers, Dr. Cameron recommends that they help set the limits: “Work with teens on a mutually agreeable set of rules that the teen helps enforce. So it’s not an a rule imposed by parents, but a conversation. There should be somescreen-free time in the household, and the teen should probably be allowed to say when that time makes sense for them.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has published some helpful activities parents can do with children to help them build executive function. They’re divided by age, from babies to teens, and include games like Simon Says or Go Fish to help small kids remember information and plan out next steps. Simple clapping or rhyming games build on memory and execution.

For older kids, both the researchers and Harvard recommend old-fashioned analog pursuits that require sustained concentration, like martial arts, dance, musical instruments, or drama. “If you’re involved in a play after school,” says Cameron, “you’re not on your phone during that the time. You’re building up the ability to ignore all the texts that are piling up.

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