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By Anna Carrington

What is really ancient, contains funny names, and is full of questions?

If you guessed the Old Testament, you get partial credit. I’m thinking of The Republic of Plato—required reading at Morning Star Academy. Classical education requires older students to engage with primary sources (texts from various historical periods). The arguments and plots are complex; the style of writing unfamiliar. Younger students are challenged to memorize facts through repetition. Reading and repetition require mental focus for success, yet such focus is in short supply these days.

Our frequent use of smartphones and tablets causes many of us to struggle with what Linda Stone has labeled “continuous partial attention.” The problem runs deeper than distracted driving. A brain with continuous partial attention is always on high alert because it is subconsciously deciding whether it should be focusing on something other than the task at hand. In The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr notes the difference in brain activity, comparing reading a news article in print to reading it online with pop-up ads and 17 hyperlinks. Different parts of the brain are stimulated, and readers report significant differences in how much they remember after they finish reading.

Our devices are incredibly useful. But usefulness may not always be the best measure of whether something is good for us. Sometimes we’re the ones getting “used.” Left unchecked, devices will keep us coming back for more because they offer erratic (irregular) rewards—often from social media. These pings prompt our brains to ask for more rewards, reducing our rational willpower. Recent studies show the same dopamine-dispensing patterns found in the brains of addicts.

In our previous blog post, Laura Miller suggests some helpful guidelines for teens using tech. The impact technology has on a developing brain should make us think carefully about limits for our younger children also—even if they don’t yet have a smartphone.

Kids don’t need to be constantly entertained, but sometimes we give in to their expectations when it’s more convenient for us. In his book, The Tech Wise Family, Andy Crouch explains how screen time can lead to increasing frustration for kids. First, the brain’s bar for “being entertained” will keep getting higher as the threshold for boredom gets lower. Second, an overstimulated brain won’t allow a student to be emotionally equipped to handle challenges on the road to mastery, causing the hurdles of a classical education to be increasingly high.

With summer quickly approaching, providing our children more free time, here are a few practices Andy Crouch calls “nudges” for your family to consider:

  • Set aside parts of your home and day as tech free. I know one mom who often leaves her phone in the car during dinner and bedtime, checking her messages after her daughters are in bed. Another family has a basket in the kitchen where devices “sleep” at night.
  • Lessen the effects of continuous partial attention. When we give kids access to screen time randomly, they do not know when to expect it and their brains remain “on alert.” This is a set-up for whining and discontentment. Establishing a specific time period (e.g. 30 minutes at 1:00pm) for iPad games or a TV show allows our children to focus on other things in the meantime. Consistency can reinforce trust and often prevent outbursts.
  • Draw attention to things like a construction site, sunflowers, or a new playground while you’re driving. If you help kids really notice their surroundings, “boring” things become scarce.
  • Talk with older kids about how the brain works (see resources below). Explain how even adult brains are “plastic” that can be molded, and how brains run in circuits that reinforce habits. Use the tech conversation as an early opportunity to talk about other kinds of addictions.
  • Pursue activities together that bring joy and require creativity such as Taekwondo, a piano duet, or raising chickens. Use “boring” outings like the doctor’s office to read a new story or play tic-tac-toe. Always carry crayons.

In Matthew 22:37 (ESV), Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” We are often careful to filter what our children’s minds see and hear. Shouldn’t we be just as careful with how their minds see and hear? Instilling wisdom and virtue is a goal of our Academy; make sure your student’s brain is wired for the challenge!

Resources:

How to Teach Our Children to Use Screens with Wisdom”, thegoodbook.com

The Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, by Nicholas Carr

Stop Letting Modern Distractions Steal Your Attention,” The New York Times

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