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by Davee Evans

The Kaiser Family Foundation found a huge increase in TV, music, phone, computer, and video game usage among 8-18 year olds compared to just five years ago. Their study was published this month. Also increased is the amount of multi-tasking in that age range, where kids are using two devices at once; for example, texting while watching youtube videos or talking on the phone while watching TV.

I don’t think this is just the kids. As soon as the topic drifts a little in meetings at work, I see people pull out their Blackberries and iPhones. When I come home at night often I find my housemates in front of the TV, watching Family Guy or the Daily Show, but both of them are also typing away on their laptops. I fall pray to this all the time, and soon the rumored Apple tablet and similar devices will make it even easier to have rich content in a decent size wherever I go.

But if this under-18 study is indicative, the whole world is heading toward an even more multi-tasked and media soaked lifestyle.

I don’t think kids should be completely removed from it all, unless you want them to grow up both luddites and thoroughly disconnected from their friends. The future is digital communication. It’s an increasingly necessary part of being in community.

But there is such a need for self-awareness in all of this. The technology is moving forward at an amazing pace and won’t slow down. And it’s increasingly interruptive and engaging. So our only true path to avoid increasing distraction and addiction is cultivating awareness: seeing how they are impact our lives; pay attention to the karmic repercussions basically.

The New York Times interviewed the study’s authors, who described the results as shocking in part because the pace was increasing. From 2004 to 2009 the amount of time increased much faster than from the same period between 1999 and 2004. All totaled, the study found the amount of time kids spent on these activities increased from 6.5 to 7.5 hours per day, and when multi-tasking was accounted they were packing almost 11 hours now into those 7.5: an increase of 2.25 hours of content from just five years ago.

The Amish have a thoughtful approach, carefully considering each piece of technology before allowing it into their community. I applaud their discipline. My approach has been haphazard and much less effective. I slowly notice that I’m spending too much time on something, and not seeing friends as much as I’d like, before I make any changes to my habits.

What to do?

I should try tracking my time, along the lines of this study, carefully for a day now and then, especially given my project this year imagining that I have only a year to live. I should know better where that time is going.

Then secondly, I should cultivate awareness of when I’m multi-tasking and when I have the urge to reach into that world. Am I checking emails in a meeting, for example, and is that really necessary? Do I really need to send that text right now? Do I reach for my iPhone first thing each morning, to see if any new and exciting emails have arrived while I was asleep? But this is going to be a real practice for me.

What does this mean for teaching dharma? Definitely that distraction and speed is going to be an ongoing topic, and reconnecting to our body and the present moment will be a common theme. I think getting comfortable with boredom is also going to be worth emphasizing and working with, if entertainment is one of the drivers in this. And if the world is ever moving to rich digital media, we should keep moving the transmission of dharma to more modern forms like youtube, podcasts, and mobile devices. It’s just the reality of the time we live in.

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