The Dangers of Texting: What are we teaching iKids about driving?

Lately I have noticed a new trend, stoplight texting. It happens at almost every major intersection with a signal, especially when there are more than three cars waiting for the light to turn green.   You have probably experienced it yourself. When the light turns green, at least one car just sits and doesn’t move as the cars in front of it goes through the intersection. Then the person will look up from their phone (sometimes after I gently honk) and speeds through the intersection before the light turns red. Invariably, because of their bad smartphone habit, the light changes before I can go through the intersection and I am stuck at the red light.

You may think this is just a minor inconvenience, but a new study conducted by AAA about teenagers and distracted driving shows that our texting and driving habits are having disastrous results. What makes this study so compelling is that it is based on 1,700 videos that were recorded as teenagers were driving. They discovered distraction was a factor in 58 percent of all crashes, including 89 percent of road-departure crasheds and 76 percent of read-end crashes. Before this study, it was thought distraction was responsible for only 14 percent of all teen driver crashes.

How big is this problem? In 2014, about 963,000 drivers age 16-19 were involved in automobile accidents, with 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths. With just over 20 million teens age 16-19, this means almost 5% of this age group was in an accident. Most significant almost 60% of these were preventable. The two biggest distractions they discovered was talking to someone else in the car (15%) and cell phone use (12%).

An earlier study by the AAA found that adults were far more likely to be using their cellphones while driving. While only 20 percent of teens reported using a cell phone while driving in the last month, forty-three percent of adults ages 25 – 39 reported doing so.

This study points to a much larger problem with our use of our techgear and how it is affecting the way we think and interact with the larger world. Matt Richtel, in A Deadly Wandering, A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, tells the story of Reggie Shaw, a college student in Utah, who fatally struck two rocket scientists as he was texting and driving. One of the first cases that was actually prosecuted, Richtel uses this example to explore the wider issue of attention and how our digital life affects our brains and the way we make decisions.

In the book he interacts with leading neuroscientists to discover how our use of smartphones and tablets is affecting the way we think. In this example he shows how powerful our devices are. “There are few impulses as basic and inescapable as the one that urges you to turn around if someone taps on your shoulder. You must discover if the person is an opportunity or a threat. When your phone rings, it is a proverbial tap on the shoulder. You want to find out who it is. You need to. Your bottom-up survival system demands it.” (p. 215)

But our devices don’t just ring when someone calls us. They are designed to send pings and dings to us whenever we receive a text, a message, or an alert from our favorite news source. As a result we live in a constant state of distraction.

When coupled with driving, this creates a dangerous mix. Reggie’s story illuminates the problem with texting and driving. Most people just don’t send one text. In fact, texting, especially if it is done in the midst of a heated argument or intense debate is an ongoing discussion. Before he crossed into the wrong lane and crashed into the oncoming car, Reggie had been involved in a series of texts with his girlfriend.

Dr. David Strayer, a researcher in the area of attention and performance, gave testimony at Reggie’s trial. What he said is worth repeating. In his research he used an important term, “inattention blindness.” He said, “Depending on the complexity of the driving task, it may take fifteen seconds or more after you’ve push ‘send’ before you’re fully back in an unimpaired state.” (p. 274)

Reggie, who had been having problems remembering what had led to the crash came to a revealing thought after hearing Dr. Strayer’s testimony. “What if I was so preoccupied that I actually didn’t know what was going on?” (p. 275)

And that is the problem. As much as we would like to think we can handle multiple inputs at the same time, our brains are not designed for the demands of the digital age. We can only focus on one thing at a time.  As the iKids Generation, whose leading edge is 15-years-old gets ready to drive, now is the time to teach them the importance of driving distraction free before it is too late.

So what should we do?

  1. The leading edge of the iKids (born since 2000) is fifteen-years-old and will be hitting the road next year.   This generation who sees digital technology as their birthright will need specific guidance from parents, teachers, and youth leaders on how to drive without being hooked up to their techgear. They will need to be taught how to focus on the road and to pay attention to what is happening around them while they drive.
  2. We should be asking car manufactures what business they are in — making cars or digital platforms? Putting digital interfaces with access to social media sites, internet service, and mapping apps in dashboards next to the driver is a recipe for disaster, especially for young drivers. It invites and encourages distracted driving, putting every person on the road at a greater risk of being in an accident.
  3. Parents need to ask what they are teaching their children about driving. If they are constantly talking and texting (even at stop lights) while they are behind the wheel, they are teaching their children that driving a car is just an afterthought, not a skill that demands our full attention.  They must realize they are the primary teachers of driving and their children will follow their examples, examples that could lead to deadly consequences when their children start driving.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age

iKids and Screen Time: Is it Time to Hit the Pause Button?

It’s hard to believe, but the iPad has only been around for four years. First introduced in 2010, it ushered in a digital wave of devices that have been quickly embraced by families with children. Almost everywhere you go you will see children with digital devices about three inches from their faces as parents do their shopping or walking.

Some recent articles and studies reminds us that we are in the midst of a great experiment – and it might be time to hit the pause button on the amount of time we let the iKids use our favorite devices.

  1. Is there a difference between reading a book on a screen than reading a physical book?
    Apparently so. When parents read a book to a child on an iPad or Kindle Fire there is more focus on what is happening on the screen than on the story that is being read. As a child looks at the words on the screen, they want to touch the screen to make something happen. Instead of focusing on the words and the story, they are more interested in the images on the screen. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University says the goal of reading a book is starting a conversation about the story. “But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.”
  1. Does the number of words a child hear matter?
    While much is made of the economic disparities between the rich and the poor, another disparity has great implications on a child’s success in the future. Studies show that affluent parents spend 30 minutes more a day reading and talking to their children than poor parents. The daily intake of words is just as significant as maintaining a healthy diet or getting enough exercise. By the time a poor child enters school he or she has heard 30 million less words than their affluent peers whose parents buy them books, read to them, and engage in more conversations. What makes this even more troublesome is that a child can’t make this up by working harder when they are older. The development of language skills it closely tied to the developing brain of the toddler and preschooler – once that time is past, you can’t make it up. This research does not take into account the new trend of using digital devices. If the affluent turn to using tablets for reading instead of physical books, the number of words heard by their children may go down.
  1. Does multitasking damage your brain?
    You would think watching TV and flipping pages on your smartphone at the same time is just a harmless activity, just a way to spend some of your down time. But it turns out, multitasking, especially if it is an ongoing way of life, may be taking a toll on our brains. The brain can only do one thing at a time and with the constant switching between streams of information you end up doing multiple things inefficiently. Stanford University researchers found heavy multitaskers did poorly when it came to productivity because they are unable to filter out unnecessary information. In another study, researchers at the University of Sussex compared the MRI scans of people who multitasked and those who didn’t. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in their cortex, the part of the brain that controls our emotions and cognitive ability. Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained the implications: “I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

The Implications:

While the use of techgear for reading and entertainment may be convenient and fun, when it come to iKids we need to seriously think about how much they should spend on screens. Because children and young teens are at the peak of brain development, a careful watch must be made on how the devices are used.

  • For preschoolers, the old fashioned practice of reading a physical book develops imagination and deep thinking. It makes a connection between the parent, the child, and the story that enhances their thinking and creates an emotional bond between parent and child.
  • For 8-10 year-olds, the types of study habits they develop will greatly impact their ability to think in the future. Working to use one stream of information, rather than being surrounded by multiple devices will be a challenge, especially as schools increasingly turn to the use of techgear in the classroom.
  • For 13-14 year-olds, as smartphones become the center of their relationships with their friends, the challenge becomes weaning them off their constant texting, SnapChatting, and uploading. When it comes to schoolwork, what was said earlier about 8-10 year-olds it true – moving them away from multitasking is important for their long-term brain development.

Are we on the eve of distraction?

By Craig Kennet Miller

Christopher Minms in the Wall Street Journal makes some powerful observations about what he calls “The Distraction-Industrial Complex.”  As our smartphones and apps get smarter their ability to keep us in a constant state of distraction is increasing.  With the coming of new gadgets like the iWatch and Google Glasses, constant notification alters will only become more appealing and intrusive.

I noticed this myself on my latest flight from LA to Nashville.  There was a time when fellow flyers would be cocooned with the latest novel as they clutched their paperback books in their hands.  Now everyone seems to be linked up to a tablet or smartphone with their ears tethered to earbuds or headphones.   Gone are the days when a child would sit quietly with a book to read or color in a coloring book.  Instead, each child is glued to their techgear, stabbing at the screen with their tiny fingers as they interact with their favorite game.

While the confinement of a plane makes every anxious parent look for a way to keep their child quiet, one suspects that home life is not much different.  Major corporations from Comcast or Time-Warner who provide you with WiFi to Amazon and Microsoft who provide you with movies or games, all have in their best interest families that are connected 24/7 to their services.

The creators of Google, Facebook, and Twitter are eager to keep you and your family connected to them at all times.  Whether at home or on the go, their business model is built on keeping you busy.

For Mims this is not a good thing.  He says research points to the fact that the distractions generated by our devices keeps us from being productive, causes us to lose our ability to think, and to focus on one thing for long periods of time. “In a world full of interruptions, we can’t win.”  If we decide to turn off our techgear we become afraid we are going to miss out on something important.  If we keep them on, we are on constant alert — never giving our brains a rest.

His solution is a radical one – turn the Internet off.  Or create a space where you can’t get it.

As we think of iKids and their development, his idea is worth considering.  If not turning it off completely, at least turning it off at set time of the week.  Maybe on Friday evenings or Sunday mornings or after 8:00 pm.   While adults need down time, it is even more essential for children and teens to have open space to think, to create, to learn, and to talk to someone real – like you.