In his book, The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a visiting scholar at Stanford, wrestles with the question, "How can we reclaim our lives in an age that feels busier and more distracting by the day?" For parents, many of whom juggle multiple roles at work and at home, electronic devices can be both a lifeline that connects us to our jobs and our friends -- and a black hole that distracts us from being present with our families and in touch with ourselves.
A father of two and an avid gamer, Pang spoke to The Huffington Post about some ways parents can use technology more mindfully -- and how they can guide their children towards a more sustainable relationship with games and devices.
Like It Or Not, You ARE A Role Model
"One of the simplest things that parents can do to improve the lives their children lead with devices and social media, is to model good behavior," says Pang. As he points out, many parents yell at their kids to get off their screens -- while simultaneously typing a message to a colleague or "liking" something a friend from high school posted on Facebook. The bottom line: the whole family has to play by the same rules otherwise parents lose all credibility. "Kids are like sponges," says Pang. "They have a genius for noticing all the things that we would rather they not -- and this includes how we use devices and social media." Pang also reminds parents that being connected all the time, whether to work or a social network, is almost always unnecessary. "We've become accustomed to the idea that we have to respond quickly to a message from a client or our boss," says Pang. He suggests taking a moment to consider whether it's useful to look at your email when you're with your family if you can't give it your full attention. "We get into the habit of treating all messages as equally urgent, but we've also come to like the feeling of staying in the loop because it's a way of proving our own importance," Pang says. Remember that you're actually important to your family -- therefore they deserve your focus more than your smartphone.
You Know More Than You Think You Do
As parents who grew up in the stone age of dial-up lines, we may sometimes feel that our "digital native" kids inhabit a world that we can't comprehend. But according to Pang, this is completely untrue -- and he recommends that we use our own experiences with technology to help guide our children about how to use it. "Anybody under 50 is part of the generation that grew up with the first video games and personal computers," he says. "We were the people whose brains were supposed to be destroyed by all this technology and many of the same kinds of things that were said about the effect of the Internet or text messages or Snapchat on kids today were said about us with Compuserve and Prodigy." But even if you weren't obsessed with Atari, or didn't get an email address until the aughts, technology's lure is something we're all familiar with at this point. "We know about what's appealing and potentially addictive about these technologies," says Pang. "We should have a greater degree of confidence and recognize the responsibility that we have to help our kids."
What You Play -- And How You Play It -- Matters
Pang's rule of thumb when it comes to video games is simple: Don't let your kids play games that are all about "hitting random buttons as fast as you can and hoping something happens." Instead, Pang advises, encourage your kids to play games that challenge them to learn new skills. If your child loves Minecraft, for example, don't let them play it if they're just digging around randomly looking for gold. Instead, Pang says, Minecraft, which is an open ended game, should "reward self-challengers to be imaginative and creative." A favorite game of Pang's is Mario Kart, which he plays with his wife every night. "With Mario Kart, you learn how to control your vehicle, you learn the the courses," he says. "You can demonstrably improve in ways much the same as you can when you are playing chess or poker. It's a game that rewards concentration and skill." Pang also suggests that parents talk to kids about the ways in which some games are designed to just suck them in. "Make kids aware that some designers just want you to keep mindlessly playing," he says. "Just like advertisers just want you to buy stuff."
Come To Terms With The Problem
"I don't think you can take a dictionary definition of addictive behavior and just substitute Internet for alcohol, but I do think it's useful to think about the degree to which these behaviors can affect our social lives and ourselves," says Pang. Sometimes parents worry about their kids' habits but don't know what to do to help. But ignoring problematic behaviors can lead to trouble. "If it's hard to get your kid to [unplug], if there's a lot of negotiation and "just 5 more minutes" -- that's a warning sign," Pang says, that your relationship with technology isn't healthy. "If they default to their devices in a mindless way -- if games or devices begin to affect their social life or school work, you have a right to step in and say, 'We need to change this,' says Pang.
Screens Can Block Your View Of Your Child
In August, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla) told The Huffington Post that on her daughter's 10th birthday, the grade-schooler asked that Mom put away the iPad and smartphones for 24 hours. "It made me realize how often I'm not present, even when I'm present, if unplugging completely was something she wanted from me for her birthday," said Wasserman Schultz.
Pang believes that if your child asks you to spend a day -- or even a few hours -- offline, then you have crossed that "bright red line." "If you get to childcare late because did a quick email check and then 20 minutes later you're still in front of your screen, that's bad time management," says Pang. "You need to ask yourself if [technology] is getting in the way of you being the parent you need to be." That said, Pang thinks that playing video games with your children can also be a great way to connect. "I think it's every bit as legitimate as going outside and tossing a football in terms of things that the kids are likely to appreciate about you later on in life," he says. But there are exceptions. "If you're playing the part on Grand Theft Auto 5 where two of you are collaborating on stealing a bus to run over homeless people, maybe you want to examine that," Pang says, laughing. "Assuming it's a more benign game, and you're not spending 8 hours playing it, I think it's actually great."