When I was in school, my digital distractions were pretty limited. We had a television, but I had to watch the shows when they were on. There was no PVR or Netflix or 24-hour Disney XD. There was a fixed schedule and a rainbow of colours that appeared along with an annoying beep during the hours when you were supposed to be asleep. Add on top of that the fact that I had to share the television with my three siblings and the number of hours I sat in front of a screen were pretty minimal.
At some point in my teenage years, we got a Nintendo and a computer. Those were fun, but again limited. We could only have as many games as our birthdays, Christmas and allowance or babysitting money could buy. There weren't thousands and thousands of free apps providing constant entertainment and diversion. There weren't ways to connect with our friends online.
In fact, the first time I interacted with anyone digitally was in 1992, the year I graduated from high school. That is when I got my first 1200 baud modem and joined a few local BBSes. Even then, the number of people, the number of conversations, was limited. I would reach a point of boredom and log off.
For three of the four years that I was doing my undergraduate degree, I didn't have a television. The one year I did have a television, we got a grand total of three channels. While I had a computer in my room, it didn't connect to the Internet. I had to go to a computer lab or a library to do that. Tetris and solitaire were as good as it got.
When it came to getting my reading done and my essays written, the only distractions were the clouds floating by outside, the allure of a nap, or making myself a snack. Other diversions were possible, for sure, but required more effort. Going shopping, meeting up with friends, or watching one of my few loved televisions shows were welcome diversions to plan for. They weren't things tempting me, one click away, 24 hours per day.
I was organized. Perhaps even a bit obsessive compulsive organized. I would plan out my week in terms of the classes that I needed to attend, the reading and writing I had to get done, and the diversions that I had carefully planned (Seinfeld at 9:30pm on a Thursday, dancing with friends on Friday evening, a Sunday afternoon nap). If I didn't struggle through four chapters of Aristotle, I didn't get to laugh with Jerry.
My organization brought rewards in the form of great marks and a feeling of accomplishment.
But these days? OMG it is harder. So much harder.
It is hard for me, as someone with YEARS of practice at staying on task and on schedule and getting things done. It is hard for me, as someone who gets to put money in the bank or buy nice things as a reward for getting my shit done. Even as I write this, I also have facebook open in another tab and the little (1) in the corner is nagging at me. Can I finish this paragraph before I go and see what it is all about? Will I get this article finished before I need to go and pick up my kids at their birthday parties and play dates?
What if I don't? Meh. In this case, no one is counting on me. Maybe you like reading my blog and would enjoy this article. But if I didn't write it, would your day be ruined? Not really. Would I be uanble to feed my family? Also nope. Would I experience any negative consequences? Perhaps a little nagging feeling that it would have been nice to get an article written. But it would also be nice to see what is happening on facebook.
You get my point, right?
Now the real reason for writing this: My kids, our children. I wonder sometimes, in this day of constant digital distractions and instant amusement at the click of a button, if they'll ever be able to develop the willpower or the skill or whatever it is to ignore the nagging of the digital distractions. Right now, as their parent, I can set limits and enforce them. Whether on a schedule or in terms of rewards dolled out for getting things done, I can impose limitations and motivation.
But what happens when I am no longer there to provide structure and rules? What happens when the school no longer has rules about no electronics at school or at least no electronics in the classroom? Will they ever come to a point of self-control? Will it be easier for them to control themselves (because they've almost always had these distractions, the way I always had clouds floating by)? Or will it be harder?
The reason I was motivated to write this article is that I decided to check in on facebook instead of unloading the dishwasher while my kids were playing minecraft and watching Netflix. When I went on facebook, I saw an article called Measuring Students' Self-Control: A 'Marshmallow Test' for the Digital Age, posted by my friend Emma Waverman who writes at Embrace the Chaos when she isn't busy being distracted by twitter (or doing her other writing jobs).
Quick Tangent: Months and months ago, Emma tagged me and asked me to write a blog post about my writing process. Another thing that I haven't done, because we finally got Netflix and I watched all of Orange is the New Black and Brooklyn Nine-Nine this summer. Sorry, Emma. But in fairness, Emma still owes me a guest blog post from YEARS ago. So perhaps, this can stand in as my blog post about my writing process. Basically, my process is:
- Come across something that inspires me enough to write (the article Emma posted)
- Find the time to write (kids at birthday party/play date)
- Limit other distractions as much as possible (sitting in a coffee shop, avoiding the little (1) on the facebook tab)
- Write, write, write, add links, add pics, publish.
- Edited to add: Go back hours later and edit the typos that don't appear until after the blog post has been published.
Where was I?
Oh yes...the article I read. In Measuring Students' Self-Control: A 'Marshmallow Test' for the Digital Age, the article discusses a distraction test given to students. Students are given the choice between doing math problems, watching videos, or playing a video game. Here is an excerpt from the article explaining the test:
So they devised a task that uses behavioral responses to measure academic diligence, which they define as “working assiduously on academic tasks which are beneficial in the long run but tedious in the moment, especially in comparison to more enjoyable, less effortful diversions.”
The rationale behind the test is that with many subject areas or skills, such as mathematics, the basic process of building fluency and mastery involves a lot of practice. It requires “hard work that is perceived as tedious, even though people know it’s immensely important,” D’Mello said. “But that’s just the reality.”
To measure this skill in a scenario simulating real life, D’Mello, who is an assistant professor of computer science and psychology, designed the diligence task with a split computer-screen interface (click here for a demo). On the left side, students can choose to do a series of boring skill-building math problems — simple, single-digit subtraction. On the right side, they can play Tetris or watch short, entertaining YouTube video clips of movie trailers or sports highlights. The test is delivered online.
Overall, the teens doing the test spent about half of their time on the math problems, but some did a lot more math than others. What would motivate them to do that and what does that mean in terms of other outcomes for their lives? The students who did more math problems were more likely to graduate from high school and had higher IQs (chicken, egg?).
Some students gamified the math itself, challenging themselves to see how many math problems they could complete. That is definitely something that I employ myself in my work and in my fitness activities. I think my personal trainer has figured this out about me and is using it to push me even further and harder. But is that something that is hard wired in my genes and if so did I pass those down to my kids and if so why am I not seeing it yet? Or is it something that is learned and that I developed over time with my planning and scheduling and rewarding myself with diversions?
Some children legitimately have ADHD and are well served by pharmaceutical or non-pharmaceutical interventions to manage that. But what about the rest of the kids out there who don't have ADHD, but still experience the nagging of that digital device that wants to distract them from the things they need to get done? Are they going to figure it out on their own eventually, find that motivation, and push through? Or is there something that we should be doing as parents and educators to help them learn self-control?
I don't have the answer, but I'm certainly open to ideas and suggestions. Being a self-starter and an "I can do that" person is something that I think serves people well in life in terms of their success and their happiness. But does that fire need to be lit or does it kick in on its own?
So, I got the article written. The dishwasher will need to be unloaded when I get home while I try to motivate my children to do their French homework.