Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Dr Larry Rosen on activism and imagination in the age of the Distracted Mind.

Dr Larry Rosen is a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University. He has been a teacher for 45 years and has been studying the impact of technology for 33 years, and has written 7 books on the subject. He does a lot of research which explores the psychological impact of technology. He is co-author, with Adam Gazzaley (who we will also interview soon), of the brilliant ‘Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World’.

We talked by Skype, and I started by asking him how we would assess the initial results from the 20 year digital ‘experiment’. How are we doing? Where do we find ourselves? Fundamentally, I asked him, do you think we’ll look back and think it was all worth it?

“I firmly believe that we are in the middle of a grand experiment on a lot of levels, and that the experiment has massive numbers of subjects – the billions of people who have smart phones. The issue is that we’re looking at a changed world.

I really look at the change being promulgated by a few things. Obviously starting somewhere back when the World Wide Web came in, in the 1990s when it became very popular, when you started seeing everybody jumping on their computer to get on ‘the Web’ (I don’t think anybody calls it that anymore – or ‘the Net’, or ‘on the Internet’). It’s so funny to think back so far. But life really changed about 10 years ago.

Two things really started to change. One was the creeping advent of virtual connections. Prior modalities, starting earlier with email, phasing in through short messaging systems, through social media sites, to where we are today, where in a decade plus, we’ve all got multiple social media accounts. We have at least an email account if not multiple ones. We have at least a short messaging system if not multiple ones, and we are spending massive amounts of our day communicating.

The problem is that we’re communicating from a distance with people out there. The research does show that most of the people we have virtual connections with are people we know personally. But we’re still not gathering the benefits of full communication.

The other issue I see is that we are spending inordinate amounts of time now with our faces pointing down at a screen, and not pointing up at the world around us. When we have nothing to do, instead of letting ourselves steep in our thoughts, letting our brain turn on that Default Mode Network that signifies that we’re daydreaming, mind-wandering, being creative, having our brain just find disparate ideas and put them together, we opt to grab our phone, and do something with our phone. We’re seeing a continual increase in the amount of time spent looking at the phone.

We have some data on this, some of which has been published and some of which is brand new. For two years in a row, I had students, average age 23 to 25, so older students – put an app on their phone that monitored how many times they unlocked their phone each day, and how many minutes it remained unlocked.

Two years ago, in spring 2016,  students put the app on their phone all semester. The app ran for about 8 weeks. During this time, the typical student unlocked their phone 56 times a day, for 220 minutes. If you do the math, that’s just slightly under 4 minutes on a lock. We don’t have data on what they were doing. There are apps that will monitor that, but from everything we can see, what they’re doing is mostly communicating.

A year later, almost exactly a year ago, we did the same thing with an identical class. The average number of times they unlocked their phones was only 50 times a day, but for 262 minutes. Now you’re looking at an average of slightly over 5.25 minutes per time they’re on there.

This time we asked them a lot more questions about what they were doing. Turns out that the primary thing they’re doing is using social media, which means they’re spending their time not connecting with their brain. They’re spending their time basically communicating, although there are people out there like Sherry Turkle who would argue that it’s really not communication, it’s just connection or what she calls “sips of communication”. But they are basically not allowing their brain any kind of free time.

We also, interestingly enough, we have this model of what causes them to do this. The two primary parts of the model are poor executive functioning, and technological anxiety. Some people call it ‘FOMO (‘Fear Of Missing Out’)’, but ours is more not being able to access the internet, not being able to have your cell phone, feeling dependent on the technology, so it’s a little different than FOMO. But those two variables tend to be pretty predictive of everything we find: every use of technology; course performance on my course; sleep problems at night; mental health issues. Seems to be a pretty robust model.

This year I added in another variable called boredom, which very few people are studying. The reason they’re not studying it is because it’s very difficult to pin down what exactly is boredom. We used a couple of different measures of boredom, and interestingly enough, boredom did not necessarily fit in the model at all. It was usurped by the anxiety variable basically. It correlated with course performance. The less likely you were willing to be bored, or the more bored you got, really the less likely you were really to be bored, predicted poor course performance.

Part of what now we’re going to look at is, “So what is boredom?” Boredom is the cause that flips you into a creative or open minded mode, and that’s an interestingly open question still. But what you do notice if you look around is that we do not allow ourselves to even be bored for a moment, an instant.

Absolutely. At this point into this massive experiment, where we have billions of people participating in this experiment, are the results troubling, concerning? On balance, is it worth it?

On balance, I think we’re still in the middle. You can’t deny that you get a lot out of your smart phone. It is everything. I mean, that’s part of the problem, that it is everything. You have an idea of a song you want to hear, you can hear it on any one of many music venues. If you have a movie you want to watch, you can almost always find it and watch it on your phone. If you have a TV show you’ve missed, you can watch it. If you want the news, you can get it. There’s nothing you cannot do on that phone.

So of course, it’s an attractive appendage. What is more and more disturbing to me is that we’re seeing more physiological signs that this is not good for us. I’ll give you a couple of examples.

We’re in the middle of finishing up an experiment, my colleague Dr Nancy Cheever, where she brings people into the lab, and she tells them, just put your phone next to you on the table. She hooks them up with a couple of monitors on their fingers. One is a GSR, galvanic skin response, and the other is a heart rate monitor. Then she says you’re going to watch a video, and we’ll ask you some questions afterwards. Very simple.

A couple of minutes in she says, “Oh, your phone is creating problems with our electronics. We’re just going to move it to a table behind you a few feet. No worries.” And then what she does is to start texting them. She’s done this to Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. She’s done this to journalists on Good Morning America. She’s done this to Katie Couric. She’s done this to many people on film. And even on film what you see is as soon as the text message comes in, an instant skin response. Boom. A spike in your skin response, which indicates arousal.

Now we don’t know if it indicates positive arousal or negative arousal, because arousal is arousal. It’s just your skin response. But in this case it’s pretty clear that it’s a negative arousal, and when you ask them later, their reaction, “Well I wanted to be able to get that text message. I wanted to know who was texting me.” So Nancy’s clearly looking at physiological responses here, and part of what I’m concerned about is that this technology touches our mental status, our way of thinking, in a particular way that loads it towards us being constantly in sort of a mild state of flight or fight reaction. Meaning that every time we get a text message, we get a visceral response.

If you can tell people to pay attention to this, they will notice this. Their heart skips a beat. They’ll say, “Oh my heart skipped a beat, I got a text message.” Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Don’t know until I see who texted me. Is it a good text, or a bad text? Doesn’t matter. It’s still a visceral reaction, and that visceral reaction comes from chemicals in your body, in the anxiety area, predominantly. The one that people know is cortisol, and you get a little bump of cortisol but there’s a lot of other chemicals in there. There’s alpha amylase. There’s adrenaline. There’s a lot of chemicals that are reacting, but the ones that are easiest to measure are cortisol and alpha amylase, and they all say the same thing.

If you cannot access something, if you get anxious, that there’s a spike in these chemicals. And a little bit of these chemicals is not that bad for you. We’re not talking about a chemical that’s going to destroy your body and your brain. A little bit of cortisol is what wakes you up in the morning. A little bit of cortisol is what keeps you going in the day, so you don’t fall asleep in front of your desk. A little bit of cortisol is good. A lot of cortisol is bad. We see this happening.

Dr. Larry Rosen.

In ‘The Distracted Mind’, one of the things that you really focus on is the impact that this is having on our attention, on our ability to focus. I wonder if you had any thoughts about the connection between our attention, and our declining attention, and our imagination? 

The easiest argument is that any type of imagination requires abstract thought, and requires deep thinking, not superficial, mild, low-level thinking. The component that goes into that kind of abstract thinking is time. You literally have to have time to let your brain pull the pieces together from various areas to think abstractly about something. You cannot just simply think abstractly about something for thirty seconds then ’Boom’, you’ve got it. You have to let your mind wander.

You have to get probably into that Default Mode Network, or at least some network in your brain that’s allowing your brain to put together ideas from various places, because that’s really what abstract thinking is. It is taking ideas from various other places in your brain, things you’ve heard, things you’ve done, things you’ve thought, and putting them together in a unique but valuable ways. We don’t have the attention span to do that anymore, and it’s not just young people. It’s everybody.

I’m sure you see this in the UK. We see this everywhere. We were just in Scotland a couple of months ago, and noted how, “Gosh, the people here look just like us in America.” Their phones are out all the time. They’re always using their phones, constantly. Tourists obviously, but also people living there, all constantly on their phones. If you are constantly on your phone, constantly distracting yourself, because the phone is distracting, just the fact that we have alerts and notifications which are designed to distract us, designed to keep us focused on something they want you to be focused on, is half of the issue. You can turn off all your notifications, turn off all your alerts, and yet you will still get distracted.

So what is the culprit at that point? The culprit is your brain. The culprit is we have gotten ourselves into a habit. And the habit is in many ways very beneficial for us emotionally. The habit is we have a lot of people out there that we connect with, and we connect with them often and quickly. We’ve taken them and we’ve trained them, literally like Pavlov’s dogs, trained them and ourselves that if they text us, they’re sitting there anxiously waiting for a text back from us. If they post on Facebook, they’re anxiously checking in to see how many likes they got, and what comments they got. We’re not immune to this.

I posted something the other day on Facebook, and I checked in a few, four or five times during the day just to see what kind of comments I got, what kind of likes I got, and I thought, “Well this is pretty strange, that you’re doing this!  You can’t even regulate your own behaviour, let alone how can you hope to help anybody control their own!” But the issue is you do have to do things to release that part of your ability to think. The half of the time, alerts and notifications, you can take care of. You can turn them all off. You can put your phone away if you want. But that’s not going to help because the other half of the time, the alerts are coming from inside your head. And they’re telling you, “I haven’t checked into Facebook in the last half hour.” Or, “I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post” or whatever it is.

One interesting way to note this is that at the end of every hour or two, I have an iPhone, so I check how many apps are open in the background. I’m always amazed – “When did I open that app?” Nobody opened it for me… at one point I must have opened that app. Was it a mistake? I would have noticed. And then usually if I check every hour – I’m an older kind of guy, you can’t see me, but I’m an older kind of guy, 67, soon to be 68 – there are fifteen apps open in my background. And most of them seemingly I opened them for a moment, to check something, maybe looked at something else, got distracted, moved on.

So imagination needs time, and imagination needs attention, and these technologies deprive us of both?

Right. They conspire. It’s worse than that. They do deprive us of both, but also you have to factor in the tech companies’ role in this, app developers’ role in this, the phone companies’ role in this. They want you to be there. They make money when they get your eyeballs on their app, their website, whatever it is. They conspire to do that. There was a really interesting article the other day that suggested that one of the things that we should do, is that we should all take our cell phones and change the setting to grey scale.

The whole point is an admission that the colours that are used are attractive and that these companies spend a lot of time choosing the colours that they use in their ads, the motion that they use in their ads, to distract you, to gain your attention. So we’re fighting both the outside world, the business world, and our inside world, which thrives on communication.

You have this major collision of – collusion almost – between tech companies and our brains. Their goal is to get our brain’s attention, and they do an excellent job of it. So much so, that we are spending 262 minutes a day glued to that smart phone. With my new class, it has gone up to 300 minutes a day.

How would you evaluate the state of health of our imagination in 2018?

The state of health of our imagination? Although to my knowledge there’s no data on this, I would say that our imagination, our ability to think creatively, is probably on the decline, exactly in the opposite trend of our time spent on our smart phone.

Deborah Frances-White told me “when I was a child, we came home from school and we sat and watched Scooby Doo on the television, and we just watched it. Now kids come home from school and they can make videos. They can make their own TV programmes. They can put them on YouTube, they can have their own radio station.” In theory, all of these technologies offer us the potential to be more creative and imaginative…

Right. That was always was the goal, that they would allow you to open up your creative juices, which is why people rushed to put them into school systems because they thought it would help students think more creatively. And in many cases it has.

There’s some really good examples of technology that allow you to think more creatively. But then you face the problem of anxiety. Put the technology in front of the kids and what it does, it spikes their anxiety needing to check in, and so their brain goes elsewhere. It’s really an issue of figuring out how to re-grab our attention. It’s a multilayer issue.

First of all for anybody at any age, it’s got to be a personal issue. You’ve got to say, “Do I really want to spend my time with face pointed down? Do I really want to spend my time doing everything on this box, and not experiencing the world?” The answer to that is usually, “Yes, I do”, because what’s in this box is much more intriguing than the real world right now, which is a little scary.

It’s also an issue for parents, for educators, for product developers. It’s a vertical issue that we’re not doing a very good job of addressing because the very first question you asked me, the benefits are so huge in using these devices that it’s hard to say, “Well let’s put a kibosh on it. Let’s limit it.”

It’s funny, the one example I love to give is on the iPhone – I don’t know if it’s on the Android, it probably is – they have a thing called ‘night shift’, where the colours on the phone will start to shift in terms of the light they give out. From the white/blue light that comes out which is very stimulating to your brain, and stimulates the release of cortisol, to a more pin-hued coloured background which stops the cortisol and stimulates the release of melatonin. And it’s a noble gesture to put that on the phone but the problem is that I’ve yet to come across anybody who likes it!

Because our brain prefers the other one?

Right. The argument is the same as the colour greyscale argument – it makes it look not pretty. That’s part of it. We’ve developed a tool, well it’s an appendage more than a tool, but we’ve developed this device to be attractive, to want to keep you there, to have colourful images, to have bouncing icons. It’s pretty powerful.

Dr. Larry Rosen.

Do you see a link between our declining ability to imagine the future in positive, hopeful ways and the rise of the technology and the distracted mind that you’ve talked about?

If your mind is constantly distracted, that that leaves you little time for anything else. I don’t call myself a futurist. But I’ve been studying this for a long time and watching it unfold and even I am flabbergasted by the last decade.

I don’t think Alvin Toffler would have predicted this kind of radical change, even though he did show that the waves of technology were coming more and more rapidly at us. I don’t think even he would have predicted that 10 years after the release of the major smartphone that people would be spending 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 hours a day using it. I don’t think he would have predicted that. I certainly wouldn’t have. But it’s here.

‘The Distracted Mind’ is kind of a euphemism, because we are distracted. We all know that. All we have to do is look to the left and look to the right, and you’ll see everybody distracted by their phone. Ask somebody to put their phone away for an hour, they won’t be able to do it. Ask them to put it away for a day, on my god, they’d just as soon die.

If you can’t do that, mentally and emotionally, how can your brain function to understand abstract concepts, to get into a full discussion of what does it mean, what’s the future mean? My phone is right to my left, I just picked up my phone, since we’ve talked it says I have 2 email messages and 2 text messages, and a notification that I have an interview at 2 o’clock. How can I possibly allow my brain to not process that?

What’s the downside of processing everything that comes in, as it comes in? The downside is there’s no time left for anything else. We’ve dug ourselves a big hole. I look at everything like a pendulum that swings all the way to one side and then we go, “Oh, why are we doing this?” and it swings back toward the middle, or somewhere. This one is still swinging. It hasn’t reached its pinnacle yet. And I don’t see it retreating very quickly, because I see that all we keep getting is better, more interesting apps to play with, and more powerful phones, and more robust operating systems.

By the way, my phone died yesterday, for a moment. I came out of a movie, my phone died, and I looked at it, and I went, “Oh shit. What am I going to do?” Luckily I remembered that the other time this happened 10 years ago, when I had my first iPhone, I learned how to do a hard reset on the phone. But I did this hard reset, and what it does it puts the white apple in the middle and then it just sits there, and sits there, and sits there. It took probably a good 3 minutes to do whatever background work it had to do to recapture my phone that had died.

I’ll tell you, the panic during that 5 to 10 minutes that it was doing that, or 3 to 5 minutes, was palpable. Thinking, “We’re supposed to be driving home from the film festival that we’re at. I don’t have a phone, what will I do without a phone? What if people try to reach me?” Blah, blah, blah. Of course I had my fiancée’s phone, we could have used her phone. I didn’t really need a phone, but the panic was palpable. I should know better.

There’s been a lot of coverage this week about a letter written to Apple by some of their funders about the addictive nature of their products.  You compare social media to smoking at some points in the book. Is this something that we can address as individuals? Can we try and mange this habit as individuals, or like society, does it need a policy based approached? Like with smoking?

A policy based approach isn’t going to work. It’s unfortunately going to take an individualised approach, and what it’s going to take is something catastrophic to happen. Everybody losing their phones for a week. Magnetic pulse that shuts down all the phone systems. I’m not sure what it’ll take, but at this point I don’t see an easy way for this to go away, sadly.

I wish you could just throw a policy on top. Smoking policy worked. They put big warnings on the side of packages. What are you going to do? Put a warning on side of this nice smartphone?

I don’t think the policies are going to work because the only policies that arguably might make sense, is to try to get people to stop using the exact device that you’re making money on. It’s interesting with Apple, because Apple makes money once they sell a device. They don’t really much care what you do with the device. They just want you to buy a new one every year.

App developers do care about what you do with their device, and Apple really does care that the apps that are available for your device are the best possible ones so that you’re going to want to buy a new device. Really the onus is on the software developers, to stop developing software that’s so enticing. But how can you ask a business to not do what their business plan says? They’ll go out of business.

It really has to be a personal decision. Quite honestly, everything I write is kind of aimed at that. I write a blog, I write books, I do all this stuff, I do research, all aimed at trying to explain to people why they have to take personal responsibility for this, because it’s not going to go away. But it’s very difficult. You’re looking at probably the most fabulous device that has come out in the last 50 years. And everybody has it, and everybody’s using it, and it’s perfect. It’s smooth and feels good, and fits in your hand nicely, and the colours are pleasant. A lot of time went into making this device attractive.

I wondered if you had any thoughts on the implications of the distracted mind on activism? It feels like we’re trying to get people engaged in stuff, but like you say, people’s heads are just somewhere else. What are the implications for the world of activism? Of trying to make change happen in this new, rather strange world?

Well, we know it worked in the Arab Spring. We know that it was primarily responsible for the Arab Spring and everything that happened in the Middle East. Activism is always helped by connection and communication. One nice thing about the smartphone is that everybody has the ability to connect with anybody they want to at any time. You can send your message out, broadcast to a large, huge audience.

The only question is, is your audience listening, and does the audience have the wherewithal to spend five minutes reading your message? We know that if you want your message to get out it has to be really small, because while Donald Trump may not be able to read more than a couple of sentences, we can’t either. People don’t read long articles any more.

I’m just as bad. I’ll be starting an article in a magazine or something, and I will flip through and go, “Do I really want to spend 20 pages on this?” And I will often just read the head, the beginning, the middle and the end. And go, “That’s it, I understand the article.” How can you create activism if people don’t have an attention span to hear your message?

I do think interestingly enough it’s going, and already does, make people make their message more slimmed down to the bones, like Donald Trump’s messages on Twitter. In his 280 characters, he can get out a point pretty darn quickly. On the other hand, activists can do the same thing. It tends to be that activists tend to have more to say, because there’s more of a story behind what they’re saying, and so they tend to use more long form kinds of ways of convincing people, rather than using short form ways.

Unfortunately, the more distractible you are, and the less interest you have in something, and I will also argue maybe the less intelligence you have, the more likely it is that you’re just going to want to get your news, your information, in bits and bytes, and very quickly. And not be able to then read somebody’s thesis on why anything is happening, and any kind of a change. Why climate change is horrible, and what we can do ourselves individually, what we can do as a culture, as a society. Those are all great, and I’m sure that people write lengthy articles on that, but the problem is that with short attention spans, nobody’s going to read it. As well as books by the way.

I mean I hate to tell you this as you’ve written lots of books, but you know, people don’t read books any more.

I read yours!

Thank you.

I wonder if you had been elected as the President a year and a bit ago, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, what might you have done in your first 100 days in office?

Boy, that’s a really good question. It’s rare that I come across a question that I haven’t been asked before. In terms of trying to allow people to understand the value of creativity, the value of imagination, the value of mind wandering, which is really the umbrella over all of this, we should be trying to demonstrate very briefly, very simply, all the negative downsides to short attention span, including sleep problems, mental health problems, physical health problems, family relationship problems.

You could list them forever. Try to explain to people, in very simple ways, that if you don’t act like a Pavlov’s dog, yes somebody might get mad at you for not texting them back in five seconds, but eventually they’ll understand that you’ve changed your strategy. That you’ve backed up and said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

Somebody posted something on Facebook the other day, and she got all panicked because people were reading it and getting upset at her, and she said, “I know why they’re upset. I wrote it. It was wrong, I shouldn’t have written it.” I said, “Well, why not do this. Write it. Walk away for a minute. Go make a cup of coffee. Make a pot of tea. Have a snack. Come back and read it again, and then ask yourself, “Do I really send to send this? Do I need to post this? Is this important?”” Once we start answering, and answering, those questions, we’re going to go a long way to stopping the kneejerk reactions that we’re having.

We’ve conditioned the entire world that we all react immediately. Myself included. You will notice how quickly I respond to your emails. It’s the way I respond to emails, it’s my addiction. But if I didn’t, I’d have much more time, and much more freedom to think, to simply be, rather than do. I think we’ve gotten into being human doings rather than human beings. Part of being a human being is that we have free will in thought and creativity.

We have things that animals don’t have, which is we can imagine the future. We can think about the future. We can postulate what we could do in the future, how we might be different, or the same, how we might change our world, change the people around us. We have that opportunity. It’s just when your face is down in the phone all day, and it’s just too easy, that it’s not going to happen. So my first 100 days would probably be trying to explain on a daily basis, “Here’s another thing that the phone does to you, here’s another thing the phone does to you. Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you just try to put it away for 15 minutes. See how it feels.”

People think “it’s an all or none”, very black or white thinking. Either I have to use it, or I don’t. And if you want me to give up my phone, you’ll have to pry my cold dead fingers from it, because I’m not giving it up. That’s what people will feel. They’ve gotten that attached to it that they sleep with it all night long. So the issue would have to be having people slowly back out, and helping them slowly back out. To understand that if you go 15 minutes without your phone, then you can go 30 minutes without your phone, you can go 45 minutes. I’m not asking you to go a day because that’s very difficult. But once you learn to do that, then you stop reacting so viscerally to incoming missives that you are missing out on. It all will become I think a little clearer.

It’s going to take time though. 100 days is not nearly enough!

In terms of the conditions the imagination needs … you mentioned time, you mentioned attention. Are there any other vital conditions for the flourishing of the imagination?

No, because those are intricately intertwined. It’s almost a lack of attention that you need – not attention – it means you need to refocus your attention inward, rather than outward. And inward, not to what you’re anxious about, but inward toward what do you feel. But you need to basically turn back on your emotional network that’s all part of the Default Mode Network too, and be able to see how that is different from what the attention network is. I don’t think we understand any more.

Over the last 10 years we’ve gotten into this thing of our life revolves around our phone. And we don’t think about not having it, not using it. It’s a rare person that can put their phone in their pocket and not use it for a while. I walked out of a movie the other day, and granted the people in the movie were mostly older, and everybody, to a one, pulled their phone out immediately as they were going out of the movie. Most of them not even before they stood up in their seat.

What is all this going to do to our children’s imagination?

At least as adults, we’ve experienced the world without this kind of technology, and we know what it feels like to imagine. Anybody who’s more than 30 years old, or 25 years old, has grown up at least without a smart phone, without ubiquitous technology. Yet what about the kids growing up now?

The five year olds whose parents hand them an iPad because they’re cranky? Who let them watch movies constantly because they can, and because it makes the kid happy? What are those kids going to be like when they don’t really get to experience imagination? They don’t get to experience being able to be just lying around playing. It’s very rare to find kids actually just playing with toys without direction. They want the picture of what it’s supposed to look like. They want to make it right, as opposed to just free play. We don’t see a lot of that.

What we’re building up in our future is a group of people who will suffer from lack of ability to think abstractly, for starters. But we can do things about this. This is an easier one to solve. Number one is parents have to be good role models, and they have to put their phones away themselves – there has to be a rule, basically, that the kid doesn’t see that the first thing you do in the morning is pick up your phone. That there has to be really good role modelling if you don’t want your kids to end up like you.

The easy way to do that is to create technology-free zones. Certainly the dinner table is a good place to start – everybody’s a captive audience, you can talk about things, you can bring up topics. Get kids to think creatively. What do you think about the state of the world? What do you think about Donald Trump? You can get kids to think creatively by there being no technology available for them to not jump on it.

The automobile is a good one, I always like that one because you’re driving your kids to school. We’re driving some place, we just give kids an iPad, let them amuse themselves as opposed to going, “We could have a discussion”. I remember I used to love driving my kids places because we would talk, and the interesting thing is my youngest son is deaf, so I would have to sign backwards from the front seat to the back seat and sign the words I was saying to him, but his sister who was younger would interpret because I would talk at the same time, so if I screwed up the sign backwards, she’d tell him what I said. We would have discussions in the car and that was pre-cell phones of course. That was even pre DVDs in cars that you could put in a DVD player. They were just coming out at that point. That was a nice technology free zone.

You can have a technology free zone if you guys watch television together. I always encourage parents to watch TV with their kids. It’s called co-viewing, and it’s a good way to teach your kids stuff about the world and how it works, and how it doesn’t work. So if they see something on TV that isn’t plausible, you can talk to them about what that means. But it also should be a technology free zone then. No second screens. No second or third screens. We all have second screens.

Imagine what you’re teaching kids to do if your kid is watching a TV show, and you’re sitting there constantly on your phone and your kid says something, and you, “Just a minute, just a minute, I have to finish this email.” The big issue is what are we doing to our young kids in terms of their imagination, creativity, and there are solutions to this. That’s an easier one I think to solve, because parents are parents, and they’re in charge. This is not like the educational system where the kids aren’t in charge of the system and the teachers aren’t even in charge of the system. This is not like society where somebody’s in charge. This is a clear parenting situation, where you are the parent and you are parenting your children. You can totally control it.

It’s one of the nice things you get when you have kids. You have total control over them. To a point of course! You reach a point where there’s no control, but hopefully… I always tell parents – I used to teach a lot of parent training classes – that you have until about 12, to really capture them and to teach them the world, because that’s really your job, to teach them how to view the world, and how to manoeuvre in it. If we’re constantly giving 5 year olds a phone, that’s problematic.

People still do it, because they can’t help themselves. I’m a big movie buff, go to film festivals and stuff, and given any movie I’ve ever been in, I’m sure that there’s at least one person during every movie that couldn’t stand it anymore, and you see this light shining from underneath their coat, and they’re trying to peek at any incoming messages. You see it in church. You see it in the grocery store. I saw a policeman in a car next to me. The car was stopped, he was on his phone. Where does it end? You see people in the middle of the street directing traffic. Their phone’s right there. It’s ubiquitous. It’s actually charming when you see someone who says, “Oh, I don’t have a phone.” Or, “I don’t use my phone.” Or, “I can’t remember where I left my phone” …


  1. Tony Buck
    January 24, 2018

    SO, this is what concerns me about imagining: “imagination requires abstract thought,… You literally have to have time to let your brain pull the pieces together from various areas to think abstractly about something.”
    Young people have told me they don’t need to remember everything, like me, because they can always search it on the internet. So, Rob, if this is so, ask one of your experts how the new Cloud brain can “pull the pieces together from various areas” if there is no content in the various areas of the brain?

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