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Rest and Connect For Digital Wellbeing

Most parents experience a lot of ambivalence when it comes to technology. On the one hand, we want our kids to take advantage of and enjoy tech tools. We want them to learn, connect, create, and participate. On the other hand, we worry. We have power struggles. We want to throw all the phones out the window.

Navigating this ambivalence is part and parcel of getting beyond the “lock down” or “hands off” approach and parenting for digital wellness. As we wrestle with these conflicting feelings, it can help to name what we know we DO want kids and teens to plug into besides computers, tablets and smart phones. A couple of recent studies point to two major ingredients for digital wellbeing.

Teenager looking up at trees getting a break from technology.

1. Rest for digital wellbeing

“I just feel exhausted” a 9th grader told me after a talk a couple of months ago. “There are always things to be doing, updated, responding to. I mean don’t get me wrong I love it…Most of the time. But it is exhausting.”

Children and youth today are consuming and responding to streams of information at unprecedented rates. Many young people are starting to articulate just how tiring it can be to be “always on, always connected.” We would be wise to listen to them. It turns out that the cost of an always-connected life is not just fatigue.

Research over the last ten years has revealed that we have two different attention systems: a “looking out” system and a “looking in” system. The challenge for us humans is that we can’t use both attention systems at once. Instead, we toggle back and forth between them. Some examples of when we might use these systems:

  • Looking out: We use this when we play video games, read a text from a friend, or listen to a talk.
  • Looking in: We use this when we rest, reflect, remember, feel social emotions, or daydream.

It turns out that “looking in” is important for our emotional and psychological health.

We are just beginning to understand the incredible brain benefits that come from a rest state. Yet it is clear that this it is linked to our social, emotional, and ethical lives. For example, the more often we reflectively pause when confronted with an emotional story, the better we are at applying the morals of it to another experience. The challenge in a media rich world is that our attention is increasingly pulled outward towards sound bites, snippets, and clicks.

  • The takeaway is not that media and technology inevitable corrupt our psychological lives. In fact, we can gain incredibly valuable information, perspectives, and relationships through technology that enrich our social and emotional lives.
  • The takeaway is that processing the moral and emotional consequences of what we experience requires rest and reflection. Far from being a waste of time, “looking in” is a key part of digital wellness. It enables us to look back out in ways that are more intentional, thoughtful, and just.

2. Connect for digital wellbeing

We’ve known for a long time that little children need live social interactions to learn effectively. Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, reminds us “that need doesn’t go away” as children grow up.

Indeed, we’ve written before about the late Clifford Nass’ research with heavy media multitaskers. He found that face-to-face time acted as a clear antidote to the negative social and emotional impacts of heavy media use among tween girls. Our kids may be born into this world hardwired for empathy and connection, but research shows that they need a lot of in-person interactions with peers to fully develop these skills. It is no surprise that if kids turn towards screens instead of each other, they lose out on important practice.

Two friends taking a break from technology in front of a lake.

Researchers with the Children’s Media Center @ Los Angeles likewise found that pre-teens who spent five days at a tech-free overnight nature camp got better at recognizing nonverbal emotion cues compared to the control group that kept normal media habits. The authors make a convincing argument that the increase in in-person communication was likely responsible for these changes. It is true that time in the natural world, an experience known to have cognitive benefits, may have laid a productive stage for more meaningful interactions. But that factor alone didn’t explain improvements in emotional communication.

  • The takeaway here is not that spending time with screens inevitably makes our kids sad or emotionally illiterate.
  • The takeaway is that they need plenty of opportunities to look up from their screens and into the eyes of a friend.

Rest, connect, and digital wellbeing

I hope that my children’s digital lives are engaging, entertaining, connecting, and full of new learning. It is in support of this vision of digital wellbeing, not in resistance to it, that we need to defend the unplugged spaces that enable them to rest and connect as well.

Here are a few practical tips to get you started: