3 digital resolutions for 2014

I love digital media. I love my iPhone and my iPad. And as much as I admire those who go on digital vacations, I’m not going to do so anytime soon. But I had two moments recently that made me realize that we all need to take a closer look at our digital habits.

The first was when I was leaving work one evening. As I waited at the crosswalk outside the hospital, I pulled out my phone and looked at my emails — and suddenly realized that essentially every person around me was either talking in a phone or looking at one. Not just those waiting at the crosswalk, but all the people walking on the sidewalks — and some of the people in the cars, too. Everyone was in his or her own little world — and, let’s face it, being unsafe.

The second was when, for about the sixth time in a week, rather than hold a toddler still while I examined him, the parents held a cell phone in front of him — actually, during that visit, one parent held a cell phone and the other a tablet. Now, I see the value of distraction with these things, especially when people have to wait a while to see me. But can’t you just hold the kid — or teach them that sometimes they just have to behave?

There are two big problems these moments illustrate. The first is the problem of attention — we only have so much of it, just like there are only so many hours in a day. That whole multitasking thing (of which I’m the worst offender) is ultimately a myth: you don’t pay more attention, you just pay less attention to more things. And paying less attention has real ramifications for performance, not to mention safety and relationships.

The second is one that is a bit more nuanced and insidious: the problem of brain wiring and habits. This is particularly an issue for children, whose brains are literally still being wired; it truly matters how they use those brains. This is the time of life when they learn to pay attention, and plan, as well as control their emotions and be patient. If the solution to every moment of boredom or distress is to stick a screen with a video or game in front of their face, well, they may never learn to do those things.

So as we all think about New Year’s resolutions, here are three “digital resolutions” we all might want to make:

Don’t share—be there instead. I watched a really funny (but warning: raunchy, too) video of a comedian talking about how at his daughter’s dance recital all the parents had phones and iPads in front of their faces, literally blocking their view of their children. “The resolution on the kid is unbelievable if you just look,” he said. “It’s totally HD.” He has a point. Honestly, we don’t need to record or share every last thing. The people around us deserve our full attention. And our followers on social media don’t need to know everything we are doing — it’s not like they really care that much.

Have some designated digital-free times. Like when you are driving, obviously — but also during mealtimes, or when walking somewhere (How many people have you nearly hit?). And, of course (as an extension of the first resolution), when you are doing anything that requires (or is made better by) your full attention. Put yourself on a schedule. Turn off the alerts. Be in charge of the device, instead of having it be in charge of you.

Be thoughtful about how you use it, especially with your children. Like I said, it can be a useful distraction tool, and it can be fun and educational—but it has its downsides and limits. When you reach for a device, or your child reaches for one, stop for a moment and think: do I need to watch yet another cat video, as funny as they are? Is this video game the best use of my child’s time right now? Is this really what I want to be doing, or what I want my child to be doing?

If the answer is yes, go for it. But if it’s no, or maybe, then do something else instead. Digital media has the capacity to open the world — but the world will always be bigger than digital media, and we need to remember that.

If you haven’t seen this video, watch it. It’s a great perspective on how our phones (and all media, really) can get in the way of our lives:

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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