Digital disconnection: Seeking a balance in the digital world

Everyone has a need to forge meaningful connections with their family, friends and community. Experiences with and through those connections become stored in our ‘memory banks’ and we draw on these memories, when and if the need arises.

In my memory bank, there are no recollections of buying my first mobile phone, receiving my first iPad or any other technological experience. My memory bank is filled with memories of my summer holidays collecting raspberries and blackberries from the roadside with my friends, fishing, swimming, riding our bikes and building huts in the woods. The friendships made through those experiences have lasted over five decades and we are still able to reminisce and draw on those memories without the use of digital devices.

Is the overuse of technology depriving some of our children of having a nostalgic memory bank? Recently, I observed a three year-old being pushed along in a stroller, with a dummy in his mouth, whilst holding an iPad in his hands. This experience opened up a conversation with the adults in my household about the need for outdoor play, the need for children to be bored – to entertain and work things out for themselves, the importance of language, cuddling up on the lounge and sharing a book and emotional attachment.

During that conversation my son introduced me to a book called: ‘The Cyber Effect – A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online’ by Dr Mary Aiken. I was particularly interested in a chapter titled ‘Cyber Babies’. Dr Aiken begins the chapter describing a train journey from Dublin to Galway where across the aisle from her, sat a mother feeding her baby:

In a wonderful display of dexterity, she held the bottle in one hand and clutched a mobile phone in the other. Her head was bent to look at her screen.

Ten or fifteen minutes passed. The mother looked exclusively at her phone while the baby fed. The baby was gazing foggily upward, as babies do, and looking adoringly at the mother’s jaw, as the mother continued to gaze adoringly at her device.

For half an hour, as the feeding went on, the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone.”

Dr Aiken goes on to question the impact of reduced eye contact on the human race and discusses the fact, that in Britain there is an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among preschool-age children, where children are reportedly entering formal schooling with developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking and socialisation challenges as well as an increase in aggressive and antisocial behaviour, obesity and tiredness.

According to Dr Aitken, teachers are reporting growing numbers of children with expert ability at swiping a screen but not enough dexterity to pick up and play with building blocks. Teachers are using terms such as “tablet addiction” and “digital hangover”.

Do we know enough about the effect of overusing technology on developing bodies and minds? Parents have a right to be informed and governments have a responsibility to present to their citizens the best researched advice possible on the effects of overuse of technology.

No-one knows the circumstances that have seen parents resort to “digital babysitting” and none of us, have either, the right or the knowledge to judge those parents, but we do have a right to expect, that published research, on the developmental effects on young children engaging in overuse of digital technology, becomes a priority.

My memory bank allows me to think of my wonderful friends, the memories we share and connection that we have. I don’t have to charge my memory bank overnight, I don’t have to login to it and I don’t need Wi-Fi to access it. It’s with me all the time and anytime I choose to tune in, I’m filled with happiness.

We need to become informed on the safe usage of digital technology and not deprive our children the opportunity of building and accessing memories of beautiful experiences from their own memory banks.

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