by Lisa Moody Breslin
Rebecca Beyer stood in front of an assembly of North Carroll Community School students and shook a snow globe. She encouraged them to watch the glistening snow frantically swirl before it settled peacefully.
There wasn’t a peep from the students, who ranged from kindergarten to eight grade.
“Sometimes what happens around us every day feels like that crazy swirl that happens when you shake a snow globe,” said Beyer, the school’s literacy resource specialist. “Getting homework done, getting to school on time, getting to other activities with family and friends — it can all feel kind of crazy. Have you felt that way?”
After echoes of “Yes!” from the students, Beyer went on to draw an analogy between the importance of the swirl settling each day, the importance of finding a way to calm ourselves down and savor stillness.
She ended the analogy by having each of the 120 students close their eyes as she guided them through a meditation that included focusing on their breathing and pushing out all thoughts about the day to come for just a few minutes.
Beyer’s snow globe analogy and meditation session represent a growing trend among educators and parents to teach children how to slow down and disconnect from things around them, especially from toxic news and the instant feedback of gaming and social media.
The concern is that as people spend more time on social media, gaming and news — without a balance of healthy conversation and non-screen activity — they are becoming less sensitive, and ultimately, less empathetic.
Coupled with concerns about decreased literacy and critical thinking, more and more schools, counselors and parents are trying counter this trend and get children to spend more time unplugged.
“From a school administrator’s perspective, lack of sensitivity is epidemic, and it is a byproduct of society. Everyone is so busy that down time, even self-care, is not a priority,” said Diane Havighurst, NCCS co-founder and administrator. “With the gift of time, and efforts to teach students to be sensitive and thoughtful, all academics go easier.”
“A lot has changed because of technology. People, and often their narcissism, hide behind screens,” said Jack Ferguson, a 2018 Westminster High School graduate who attended NCCS from first through eighth grade.
“More people have stunted social skills. They rant through Facebook but would never say the same things in person,” Ferguson added. “We are also experiencing rough patches in our history, and my generation thinks it is all a new normal, but it is not.”
Ferguson’s suggested solutions to this lack of awareness and empathy mirror those of many experts.
“There is no one solution. But rather than just listening to parents or one loved one, people need to do their own research and make their own decisions,” Ferguson said. “We all need to pay attention and respect discussions with people who have opinions different than our own.”
Swinging the pendulum away from constant on-screen connection to being more in tune with other people, the world around us, and with our own emotional well-being, requires many strategies, according to Dr. Oleg Tarkovsky, a counselor at Mosaic Community Services Community Outpatient Mental Health Clinic in Westminster and an adjunct professor at Towson University.
“Parents need to be more dedicated to investing time with children and enjoying lots of conversations,” Tarkovsky said. “We need to talk about relational things, friendships, frenemies, relationships with other adults — anything that instills that notion of ‘us.’”
“Teens also have to have their own identity, one that does not involve pleasing or appeasing others,” Tarkovsky added.
The key to unplugging is recognizing what these screen-centered activities offer us — entertainment, a way to pass the time or check in with people, etc. — and then finding other ways to achieve those benefits.
Visit friends, ride a bike, play chess, do something kind and anonymously for someone else, just like folks used to do 20 years ago, local experts added.
“We suffer from boredom fatigue,” Tarkovsky said. “Most people do not know how to handle boredom. We seek a quick fix. We need to put ourselves and our children into boring situations and then teach them how to resist the temptation to go to a screen or the phone.”
Tarkovsky recommends the following:
- Exercise some level of control
- Parents need to have specific boundaries, or even consider confiscation of devices to curb screen time.
- Boundaries are better than the latter because, despite confiscation, children tend to find a way to get their fill.
- Parents should try to limit screen exposure across the board.
- Learn from research about loneliness.
Tarkovsky stresses the importance of research by the last surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy. For years, Murthy and his research partners explored how loneliness affected people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds across the country. They concluded that the source of depression, anxiety and skyrocketing mental illness is loneliness.
“I think that same loneliness is an epidemic for many kids now,” Tarkovsky said. “Though they are in constant communication, they still feel alone. We need to start talking about loneliness and how to cope with it as one of many strategies.”
If needed, get expert help.
In dire circumstances, especially if technology use is to avoid difficult emotions, especially those linked to childhood trauma, parents and their children should turn to a therapist to get help with coping skills.
“It is a different world for my grandchildren,” said Havighurst. “As parents, we need to be keenly aware of what we are exposing children to. We need to place limits and cultivate empathy.”
“We need to help youths with mindfulness, which is not emptying your mind, but paying keen attention to everything outside yourself — nature, wind — or what is happening within yourself, like the flow of your breath,” Tarkovsky said.
With the snow globe assembly in mind, Beyer echoes Tarkovsky’s advice: “It’s important that we help children know what to do with tense times and their own strong emotions. They need to learn how to look inside and reflect on their own selves, too. Hopefully these skills will carry over as they become adults. Hopefully, they will consider others’ perspectives and not jump to action and harsh words without thinking.”
“My wife and I often talk about future of our children,” said Diane Havighurst’s husband, Sam. “As our generation becomes parents, will the pendulum swing back? Our hope is that our children will know that technology and cellphones have a time and a place.”
The Great Emotional Tune-Out
Explanations of when and why people tune out emotionally and strategies for enhancing sensitivity and empathy are the topics of many books, academic dissertations and research throughout the world. The explanations are so varied and vast, they cannot be captured in one magazine article.
However, Dr. Oleg Tarkovsky of Mosaic Community Services Community Outpatient Mental Health Clinic in Westminster broke down some of the key concepts.
“Emotional regulation varies from person to person, and it is linked to specific situations, conditions and circumstances and how all these intersect,” Tarkovsky said. “It’s important to think of things on a continuum that includes the terms hypo and hyper.”
Emotions fall into two categories: difficult and easy, Tarkovsky said. Anger is a difficult emotion and joy is an easy one. If something fills us with joy we become hyper-aroused. If someone has a traumatic childhood and is exposed to stimuli that should engender joy, but that doesn’t happen, that’s an example of hypo-arousal.
Emotional responses never happen in isolation, and they are easily misunderstood.Emotions are triggered by cognition; in most circumstances, thinking happens first.
Tarkovsky applies his explanation about emotional reactions and the emotion continuum to a situation that involves a child playing a violent video game.
A teen with a healthy upbringing plays a first-person shooter game. This teen has a good relationship with his parents, he has strong peer relationships and an understanding of boundaries. He has a broader sense of how groups relate to each other and can discern violence from nonviolence. This teen’s mindset already knows real vs. not real.
No matter how engrossed this teen becomes in the game, the brain won’t allow those lines to blur. An MRI will show that the minute you turn off the game there is almost zero residual effect. The teen might as well be playing pingpong.
A teen who does not have stable, positive adults in his life plays a first-person shooter game. Much of what he has learned about life came only from his peers. He may be emotionally distant, easily angered, and susceptible to swing moods. “Easy emotions” are not easy to come by.
When this teen plays, the connections are very different. The stimulus response chain is shorter; the game short-circuits the process. If the teen’s character gets killed in the game, he feels personally assaulted. Feelings such as “I’m worthless,” “I’m no good” “I won’t amount to anything” occur immediately.
Most kids are in the middle of this spectrum, Tarkovsky said. “But, he added, “it depends on so many factors. Some are fine, but others — not so much.”
Tarkovsky outlines a distinction between gaming and the use of social media.
“With regard to technology use, social networking is more dangerous than gaming,” he said. “Gaming is still considered entertainment by the experts. Social networking and how it is handed to us — Facebook etc. — is a communication tool that creates a false sense of connection. There is no real-time communication; there is an instantaneous feedback, and there are continual feeds that convince participants that they need this form of communication.”
“But actually, social media communications distance us from others; it removes our ability to read others, their body language,” Tarkovsky added. “Psychologists are finding out that it’s not just the amount of time spent. They worry about deeper impact on self-esteem, interpersonal development.”
Nevertheless, Tarkovsky said, “You are not what you say or what you do. What you do frequently is what you become.”
“If we want change, we need to repeat what we consider better practices over and over again so that those actions and reactions become habits,” he added.