Do you remember the days when you might have to wait at home for a phone call? Or when you might write a letter (by hand!) to a friend who moved across the country or, better yet, check the mailbox each day anticipating their reply?
I know, I might sound like a grandparent harkening back to the good old days of the post-World War era. But actually, I'm only 25 and thinking back to the good old days of the early 90s. (New Kids on the Block and Mario Brothers, anyone?)
Well, for today's generation of kids, those antiquated days of 20 years ago may as well be associated with the horse and carriage, or maybe even the invention of the wheel.
Indeed, we live in the era of instant gratification and while tech-savvy Americans may get that warm, fuzzy feeling each time their phone buzzes with a new text or e-mail, an increasing number of scientific studies are showing that constant access to the internet, phones and text messaging could be detrimental to the brain.
A recent article in The New York Times discussed two university studies that have shown that multitasking between reading emails, surfing the web and checking up on friends' Facebook statuses could have a draining effect on the brain's ability to rest and the capacity to think deeply on a particular subject.
The article cited one study that analyzed people's ability to process information after walking in a natural environment—like a forest or along the ocean—versus an urban environment. It found that participants exposed to an overload of stimuli were less likely to be able to concentrate on taking in new information.
For adults, life behind screens can cause one to have problems focusing on tasks (hold on, let me check my Facebook just one more time...) But for children who may have never lived without technological distractions, the effects of technology could prove to be even more harmful.
In a federal report issued earlier this year, the President's Cancer Panel estimated that from 2000 to 2007 the number of Americans using cell phones increased from 100 million to 255 million people.
If those numbers aren't astounding enough, research by wireless industry trade group CTIA, found that 91 percent of Americans owned a cell phone during the second half of 2009.
The most disturbing thing to me about kids growing up in the era of the Internet and cell phones is that there's not much limit on the amount of time they're exposed to instant communication. Of course parents can put a "curfew" on computer time each night, but after they go to bed there's always a chance that their teen will be sitting in a dark room lit by the glow of a screen well into the night.
And when kids aren't on computers, most have access to another type of screen: cell phones. In an article by CBS coorespondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, she notes that American teens send an average of 3,000 text messages each month!
According to research conducted by CTIA, Americans sent 5 billion text messages each day, or 1.5 trillion text messages during 2009. With all of those text messages, does that leave any time for face-to-face conversations?
The harmful effects of hyper-technology aren't just on the brain. The President's Cancer Panel linked environmental toxins to high cancer rates in Americans, but said that research on the effects of radio frequencies from cell phones on the brain was inconclusive. Erring on the side of caution, the panel advised limiting childrens' cell phone use and radio wave exposure.
I've personally seen teenagers sleeping with cell phone in hand and waking up in the middle of the night to respond to a text message. And I've also seen parents so consumed with their own cell phones that they seem to view their children (not the technology) as distractions.
Reality—you know those strange moments when we can actually reach out and touch a person with whom we're talking—seems to be an increasingly distant notion these days. As much as the Internet helps us to connect with other people, it also has the potential to cause isolation.
So while it may be tempting to answer a 10 p.m. email or update one's Facebook status or Twitter feed, I think it would benefit us all—parents and kids alike—to make a conscious decision to unplug and unwind each day and enjoy the aspects of life that existed well before the age of technology.