Do we control technology, or does it control us?

Around the dinner table, in the classroom, and in nearly every facet of their everyday lives, parents and teachers across the nation are all-too familiar with the sight of smart phones and tablets clasped in the hands of children, the blue glow of their screens reflected in eyes riveted to a world of distraction. A concerned group of these parents, teachers administrators and even interim Superintendent Lawrence Mautone gathered in the auditorium of Saugerties High School on October 1, for a lecture given by Dr. Thomas Kersting, a psychotherapist who authored Disconnected: How to Reconnect our Digitally Distracted Kids.

Having prepared for this event since late in the spring, the school was happy to welcome Kersting, whose appearances may be more well known to those who frequent Fox News, or A&E’s television shows Monster in-Laws and Surviving Marriage. With over 24 years of public education experience as a school counselor under his belt, Kersting was uniquely positioned to deliver his talk, which focused on the ways in which we can identify detrimental technology usage in our youth and try to cut off its negative effects at the pass.

Kersting said that his career-driving concern began in 2009, around the inception of Facebook. A long-time educator and counselor, he served on his school’s Intervention Services Referral Committee, where he worked with students diagnosed with disabilities and planned classroom accommodations to support them in the classroom.

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“We handled all the accommodation requests,” he said. “Prior to 2009, the requests we would get would be from students with Crohn’s, physical issues, diabetes, specific learning disabilities. That year, though, a woman made arrangements for a hearing for her 15-year-old son who had been diagnosed with ADD. I had never seen a 15-year old diagnosed with ADD. By the end of that school year, 90 percent of referrals were for ADD — I remember thinking ‘something isn’t right.’”

This influx of Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses led Kersting to research the topic aggressively. ADD, he said, is a neurological disorder that you’re born with — the average age for most diagnoses is at eight years of age. At the time, he puzzled over what caused this sudden increase in diagnoses for older children. At the root of this phenomenon, he said, is the concept of neuroplasticity: our brain’s elastic ability to constantly create, rewire and reinforce the pathways that control our thoughts and actions. While the function is necessary for developmental learning and to growing, it can also be detrimental — if the wrong sets of pathways are being strengthened. In this case, what researchers like Kersting have come to call ‘late-onset ADD’ is the brain’s response to the increased amount of time and focus that children are spending on digital devices and social media platforms.

He cited a 2009 Stanford study to explain. Researcher Clifford Nass separated students who self-identified as “high multi-taskers” from “low multitaskers.” They were asked to take note of each time two red rectangles changed amongst surrounded blue rectangles that proliferated in each slide. Distracted by the additional stimuli, the “high multi-taskers” performed miserably. The “low-multi-taskers” were able to focus closely enough on the specified red rectangles to track their movements reliably.

Kersting also shared data from research studies on childhood media usage carried out in 2004 and 2008 by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“They wanted to see what kinds of media kids were using and how often they were using it,” said Kersting. “The average amount of time that the average kid was consuming media was about six hours a day. They conducted the study again, and the number of hours went up to seven hours and 38 minutes a day. That number went up to nine hours a day, and kids who are considered chronic media users are using the Internet up to thirteen and a half hours a day.”

This massive growth in time spent on computers, phones, and videogame consoles means that on average, kids are spending more time each week consuming digital media than they spend sleeping. As the pathways connecting them to real-world activities become more and more ‘pruned away,’ children’s behavior and ability to function in day-to-day settings may manifest as something akin to ADD.

“Their brains are growing new pathways to adapt and assimilate to the cyber world, and they’re un-adapting to the real world,” said Kersting. “Because consuming that media is the largest amount of time that they spend in a day, when they’re placed in Ms. Smith’s class, their mind is all over the place.”

He cited the ever-growing rates of adolescent anxiety and depression, blaming in part the replacement of face-to-face communication with exchanges of typed words. As hunter gatherers, he said, the majority of our communication should be non-verbal — facial expressions, crossed arms, the positioning of the feet. In learning to punctuate conversations with emoticons and to read emotion into written sentiments, children are beginning to lose their grasp of physical social cues, leaving them prone and floundering in later classroom settings and job interviews. Also an element is the media, at youths’ fingertips, whipping them into a state of hysteria and hopelessness.

Taking notes in the auditorium on my laptop, with a Facebook tab open and my cell phone on vibrate in my accessible back pocket, the analysis was striking. A recent entry into the workforce, I had been awarded a 504 plan for similar struggles in high school in 2011, around the time I was gifted my first smart phone and a laptop soon afterward. After digging myself into a hole of late assignments one semester, receiving a diagnosis of major depression from a school psychologist, I attended a similar hearing. To me, the problem seemed insurmountable — my generation has become augmented, relying on global positioning systems to travel, Turbo Tax for finances, Facebook to figure out what to do and sleep-tracking apps to manage the amount of rest we get each day. Throughout the presentation, I heard tinny text notifications from phones that hadn’t been silenced and saw, despite the subject of the lecture, blue-lit faces amongst the small crowd. Kersting says that the solution begins with individual parents and must be reinforced within the community.

“[We need to] pull them away from these devices, and just get them back here,” he said.

Disconnecting is the first step, but reconnecting children to their home and environment may prove more difficult without significant changes in their parents’ lives as well. The traditional family dinner seems more and more to be an artifact of the past, even though extended face-to-face communication has shown to provide a healthy environment for social development, reducing the risk of mental health issues or other delinquent behaviors like drug use or early sexual activity. “We call it a family dinner,” quipped Kersting, “but it doesn’t function anymore like a family is supposed to function — it’s four individuals living separate lives, staring at screens.”

Reclaiming spaces like the dinner table, the car, and the bedroom by limiting or banning the use of digital devices is one of Kersting’s more strenuous suggestions for disconnecting distracted kids and rebuilding their environment into one more supportive of creating person to person experiences — not just for children, but for their parents, too.

“We have to be in control of our own behavior as well,” he said, “We really have to be aware [of our own usage] and really work on that.”

Although changing our behaviors at home is a more localized first step, some might question how more public spaces and experiences might follow suit.

One teacher in the audience, Riccardi Elementary teacher Joe Defino, posed this question in the form of a familiar problem.

“I’m a longtime elementary school teacher,” stated Defino. “I started before the age of technology and have seen the effects on young people, not just the educational effects but the social and emotional effects as well. The dilemma that I see as a teacher is corporations like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, they’re leading public education in terms of how things should go…We as teachers are being graded on how we utilize technology into our classrooms. It’s like we’re guiding a double-edged sword. Where do we go as an educational system to help create the solution? We are a part of the problem.”

For Kersting, the use of technology in the classroom is not necessarily compounding the problem, but does provide an overall obstacle to the measured use of digital devices in the lives of students.

“In all seriousness, I know what your struggle is. I think we’re going to see a paradigm shift back to using paper and pen,” he said. “When I gave this lecture, I left out that technology in and of itself is not bad — nine hours of it is bad. Nine hours of anything is bad for you.”

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