Between the lines: How to survive in an over-connected world
I remember those halcyon days when Douglas Coupland's book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture put me squarely into his demographic of cool, philosophical hipsters. I am a member of the first generation to grow up with digital technologies like personal computers and mobile phones, which makes me relatively proficient with technology. Yet I am still hesitant about buying an iPad or a Kindle. I would feel differently about embracing new gadgets (and I probably wouldn't call them gadgets in the first place) if I belonged to Generation C.
Generation C is the term used by Dr Larry Rosen to refer to the connected generation of young people born since 1995. Rosen, a professor and research psychologist at California State University, came to Hong Kong recently to share his findings from 25 years of researching the "psychology of technology".
Rosen's talk was littered with fun facts that made the audience gasp and guffaw in recognition of the widening generation gap. One of his studies showed that 42 per cent of teenagers can type a text message blindfolded, which is no surprise considering the other statistic that teenagers send and receive hundreds of text messages every day.
Some teenagers in his studies also claim to be able to do up to seven things at one time, while the majority of them are often doing four things at one time: listening to music, using the computer, texting and studying. I suspect that by "studying" with so many distractions, they are merely referring to the physical proximity of an open textbook.
Parents and educators generally accept that today's technologies give children better tools with which to learn. Each successive generation learns to multitask with greater efficiency. On the days that I am able to clear my list of things to do, I attribute that to my multitasking skills. Shouldn't parents encourage children to develop these same skills to become more productive?
Rosen's answer to this is thought-provoking: we are indeed more productive when we multitask, but what most of us are doing is merely task-switching.
True multitasking involves accomplishing automatic tasks at the same time, such as talking and driving, or walking and chewing gum. What children and adults today are doing (too much of) is going off-task in a pattern of continuous partial attention.
Task-switchers don't do as well in school, but this correlation with concentration seems obvious to us. Less obvious is Rosen's finding that task-switching teens have sleep deficit and sleep disruption. Most teenagers sleep less than the minimum eight hours needed for optimal growth. Many are connected to technology up to just before they go to bed. And a significant number of them stay connected through the night - waking up to read and reply to text messages.
Rosen asserts that a healthy brain needs sleep, calmness, time away from technology, and time for creative thinking. By making sure children have the tools for healthy brain development, parents help them to develop communication skills and appreciate downtime.
Here are Rosen's four rules for connected children:
Don't post to social media or text friends anything you wouldn't want your grandmother to read or see.
Wait and consider your content before you hit "send" or "post".
Have regular family discussions where there are no technology devices nearby.
Limit technology use to the living room or other communal areas, and take 10 minute breaks for every hour of use.
These rules are also useful for mothers who document their daily life on Facebook and fathers who are constantly on their BlackBerry.
(For more on this subject, check in with this column next week, and also see Rosen's book Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation.)
March 6 is World Read Aloud Day. Bring Me A Book ambassador Winnie Young and I will be reading aloud to children at a community centre in Shek Kip Mei.
You can also celebrate by organising a reading event at your child's school, or simply read with your children at home, and get connected by sharing your reading photo or book title via social media.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation dedicate to improving children's literacy by reading aloud to them bringmeabook.org.hk