News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

August 14, 2011

MARK BENNETT: As school begins, carve out daily time

By now, most back-to-school checklists are tattered and creased.

Lines drawn through the items could mean “got it” or “can’t afford it.” Like the last four school years, 2011-12 begins in lean economic times. Nonetheless, parents (and motivated students) should consider adding one more thing to their lists. It won’t cost anything, but the rewards have long-term value.

Somewhere below reminders to buy pocket folders, highlighters and spiral notebooks for your child, tack on this entry:

• Take a break from digital media every afternoon or evening, and do something else.

That means turning off the Internet, the TV, cellphones, Smartphones, iPhones, iPods, iPads. (Ay yi yi, as Desi Arnaz used to say.) That means logging out of Facebook and Twitter. Close out Angry Birds. Stop the Plants vs. Zombies. Disconnect. De-text.

Instead, commit to filling those hours of lost connectivity during the coming school year with old-school activities. Need a suggestion?

Go outdoors.

The Wabash Valley isn’t Antarctica. At the most, venturing into the back yard, the sidewalk, or a neighborhood park down the street may require a jacket in the fall or spring or a coat and gloves in winter. If the weather is simply too ugly, the Vigo County Public Library and those in surrounding counties are a short drive away. (Of course, library access was even better before the short-sighted state government forced closure of the local satellite branches through property tax reform, but we digress.)

This may seem like a cranky, “back-in-my-day” rant. It’s not. Back in my day, reruns on Channel 4 competed with the outdoors for our brain cells and adrenaline, and often won. My friends and I could kill an afternoon watching old episodes of “Green Acres” and “Rawhide” in the family room of one buddy’s house. His dad would come home from work, see four able-bodied junior high school boys staring at a television, and say, “Why aren’t you guys out stealin’ hubcaps or something?” Rest assured, he wasn’t seriously encouraging us to commit crimes. (And we didn’t, as best I can recall.) Instead, he was pointing out — with a dose of sarcasm — just how low our inactivity rated on the acts-of-redeeming-value scale.

Thus, the art of time-wasting by young folks is not a 21st-century phenomenon. It is more difficult to combat today, though. In that earlier era, when an adult turned off the TV, a kid’s technological options plunged to near zero. Yes, telephones existed, but the household shared its use and cords could only stretch so far. Stereos spun vinyl records or churned 8-track tapes, so listening to wholesome music (Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Who) was certainly possible. Still, the command to “go do something” usually meant physical movement. We ended up in neighborhood games of football, baseball or basketball, riding bikes, exploring farms, camping and hiking around creeks and woods, or bothering the adults at the diner down the street.

In 2011, non-tech pastimes rank almost as last resorts for young people, compared to a social-media chat. The allure of the cyberworld can be more magnetic than that of the real world.

That surreal reality generated lots of attention at the annual American Psychological Association convention earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Larry Rosen, a psychologist at Cal State-Dominguez Hills, has studied the impact of technology on people for a quarter-century. That includes research on the effects of social networking sites on kids. His conclusions, presented at the convention and reported by the Los Angeles Times and other media, clearly countered the perception that hours spent on social networks and other online diversions amount to harmless fun for youngsters and teenagers.

Rosen found, according to the Times report, teens who use more technology (video games, websurfing, Facebook) wound up missing school more often, and suffered more frequently from stomach aches, sleep disorders, and anxiety and depression. Tech-heavy teens and young adults who constantly logged onto Facebook also were more narcissistic. In an observation of students in middle school, high school and college, Rosen and fellow researchers found that most students could focus for only two or three minutes before diverting to text messaging or mobile phone apps. Those who logged onto Facebook in the midst of their classes performed worse than others.

The average teen with a capable cellphone sends more than 2,000 texts a month, Rosen said. In addition to that stream of chat news, those teens also can get sleep and concentration problems, and extra physical stress. (Most parents now realize the prevalence of cyber-bullying, too.)

Why are kids so drawn to all of this? Facebook, for example, offers them a potential audience of 750 million active users worldwide. That’s pretty stiff competition for a pickup basketball game or a trip to the park with a friend.

Social media has upsides, Rosen told the Times, including the chance for kids (especially shy ones) to “practice life behind a safety curtain.” Practiced in moderation, that is. If so, young people could find that life offline is still possible, and often good.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              (812) 231-4377      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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