A recent obituary hit me surprisingly hard: “Paint-by-Numbers Maestro Dan Robbins Dies at 93.” The mere mention of the paint-by-numbers inventor transported me back to my childhood dining room table where I would sit for hours engrossed in my latest “masterpiece.” You could say I was addicted to that low-tech pursuit.
I thought of that addiction while reading Adam Alter’s recent book, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Thirty years from now, whose obituary might send today’s kids back to a passion or hobby in our current homes? Some kind of social media or game developer is the most likely candidate.
That fact is not an inherently bad thing. In some ways, it simply reflects our cultural moment. But perhaps the defining challenge of today’s parenting is how to manage the accelerating — and often unavoidable — role that technology plays in family life.
Alter’s book raises red flags that might help families achieve a greater tech-life balance. The first step is to understand the subtle ways that technology’s addictive qualities are growing stronger. For example, computers — especially smartphones — continue to become faster, more mobile and more accessible. Gaming used to require a slow-loading laptop or console and lots of free time; now it can be played quickly by anyone (and with anyone) on any phone for any amount of time. Alter makes the chilling observation: “Just as drugs have become more powerful over time, so has the thrill of behavioral feedback. Product designers are smarter than ever.”
It’s also important to realize that many of today’s technological “hooks” for both parents and children include “bottomless” forms of social media, gaming, online shopping, binge viewing, e-mail notifications, exercise metrics, etc. As much as possible, show your children how to resist the tech-induced, sleep-depriving urge for just one more “like,” follower, high score, episode, step and read e-mail. You will never reach the end of those “feeds,” and neither will your kids.
Tips to achieve tech-life balance
When possible, turn off e-mail notifications during family time. Consider having children use an alarm clock for waking instead of having their phones in their bedroom. Overall, strive to “demetricate” life, since as Alter says, “numbers pave the road to obsession.”
When we allow new forms of technology into our homes without considering their addictive potential, we neglect what Alter calls our “stopping rules.”
Netflix provides an example of new, unexamined technology leading to behavioral addiction. He explains that “in August 2012, Netflix introduced a subtle new feature called ‘post-play.’ … Before August 2012 you had to decide to watch the next episode of a series; now you had to decide to NOT watch the next episode.” This simple change of a default in the home environment has greatly contributed to addictive television viewing, greatly altering the tech-life balance of individuals and families.
What else can parents do to resist such technology? Alter urges us to become “smart behavioral architects” whose home fosters “sustainable” technology use. Spend more time discussing with your children the pros and cons of using new technology in your home. In the process, you will model how to slow life down for your children to make better, more informed decisions and achieve greater self-regulation. Finally, try to replace some family tech time with offline alternatives like sports, nature hikes, hobbies, reading, art, tech-free meals and care of pets.
In hindsight, I’m so grateful that paint-by-numbers ignited my passion during childhood, bolstered my self-esteem, and led to interests in drawing and photography. Most importantly, that hobby had a built-in “stopping point” or “bottom” enforced by my parents — i.e., they would only provide so many kits at a time. (My only regret is that I no longer possess any of my “masterpieces.”)
Granted, it’s fine — and often necessary — for today’s families to use technology. But without the right tech-life balance and attention to its addictive qualities, technology also has potential to abuse family life. Don’t let it do a number on your family.