Adult Digital Distraction

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Recently our school district sponsored the showing of Screenagers, a film designed to highlight the perils of our teen’s overuse of digital devices. It is a compelling film, balancing the positive potential of digital media with the dangers that overuse can play in impressionable teenagers. As a Principal, I occasionally deal with students who misuse technology but we always use improper choices as an opportunity to learn.

But lately I’ve been thinking just as much about adult use of technology and the example we are providing for our children. I began using tech devices in education as far back as 1984, and screens, keyboards, and mice have been a significant part of my life for a long time. Is my digital lifestyle embedded too much in my existence? Think about this:

  • When I complete my mental checklist on the items I must have with me when I travel, my phone has become more valuable than my wallet, keys, or even my laptop. I am sure that if I was half way to work, I’d drive a half hour back to grab the darn phone.
  • While my other valuables can be in other parts of my house or across the school building, I am rarely more than a foot away from my phone.
  •  For years, I could feel occasional phantom vibrations in my pocket, thinking that I had a text or notification, but much of the time, I did not. This phenomenon is known as “phantom vibration syndrome”. Dr. Michael Rothberg actually characterizes this as tactile hallucination when a human believes he/she feels something that is truly not there. To make matters worse, now that I wear an Apple Watch, I’m starting to feel these phantom pulses on my wrist once in a while.

And what do I see in the public?

  • I do regular visual surveys of cell phone use among the population and I find that a vast majority of subway users are on their cell phones while traveling, and perhaps a third of restaurant goers stay on their phones, often spurning social interaction.
  • Despite a New Hampshire law against cell phone use while driving, I regularly see interstate drivers texting while traveling 70 mph.
  • It’s well documented that cell phone users can be dangerous pedestrians. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s Chewbacca Test.
  • Over half of cell phone users check their phones several times a hour and 81% keep their phones near them “almost all of their waking hours”.
  • One research study said recently that the average cell phone user opens and closes their phone 150 times a day.

So what can we do about this?

  • Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era states that new habits can be created if we simply write these goals down. She has designed a phone lock screen picture displaying an arrow in the direction of the opening of her phone which reminds her that she should only open the phone if that action meets her personal goals.
  • Cal Newport has developed the theory of attention residue which highlights the hazard of moving from task to task. He suggests that when we move to a new task we are still thinking about the previous one. Thus, when you pick up your phone to check a notification or text, your attention remains there for a while even when you head back to your primary mission. A simple solution is to turn off all notifications (at least while you’re working) and put your phone in a bag or far away from you…where you cannot see it.
  • There is research from the late 1970s on the theory of mere presence, the concept that having another human simply within one’s physical proximity can affect behavior. This theory has been extended recently to mobile devices and it was found, not surprisingly, that conversations between people without the presence of technology nearby increased the quality of these interactions. Here’s a simple solution: do not ever put a cell phone between yourself and the person you are interacting with. I had a Priest who once stated that the secret to a good marriage is to have a weekly date night. My wife and I keep our cell phones in our pockets when we’re out together…unless we are texting our kids!
  • I was surprised this week that one of my leadership heroes (and techhead), Michael Hyatt, began promoting a new paper planner. On his site he proffers research from the University of California and Princeton that states that the act of physical writing (that’s with a pencil or pen on paper!) engages the brain, increases memory, and helps solidify concepts. I’m not there yet, but perhaps abandoning technology for part of your work flow may be a good idea.
  • Use Unroll Me to quickly unsubscribe from the emails you just don’t need. At the very least, use a non-essential email address when you do subscribe to email lists.
  • Turn off as many notifications on your phone as possible. Keep only those that are essential.

When it comes to our digital habits, we have a responsibility to do better for ourselves and provide a quality example for our students and our own children. We can’t expect our teens to be digitally responsible until we get our own house in order.

Bill Carozza is Principal of the Hopkinton, NH Elementary Schools. You can find him at and on Twitter at @wcarozza.


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