Digital technology is transforming our homes, but its impact is under-appreciated. The home needs a voice at the table where new products are being designed and marketed, and its members need help to make good decisions about what is on offer.
We at the Home Renaissance Foundation recently canvassed expert opinion on this vital issue. Now we are offering a collection of lively testimonies from the home-front and the professions that gives important insights into managing the digital home well – that is, with human needs in mind.
As HRF Chairman Bryan Sanderson says in a postscript to the collection: “If the home is to be understood not just as another market, but as the place where life-long wellbeing is fostered, then we do well to take a discerning view of what comes through its doors – the challenges and the opportunities.”
In the following excerpts, a woman who has been quadriplegic from the age of two talks about the blessing digital technology has been to her, while a psychiatrist and popular author talks to parents about dopamine, delayed gratification, and the pre-frontal cortex.
Memé Alsina is the youngest of seven siblings and a quadriplegic since the age of two and a half. A virus affected her spinal cord and left her in a wheelchair. This changed her life and that of her family, but despite the difficulties, her attitude towards life has allowed her to move forward, study a career and work.
I always say that despite my situation I feel a lucky person. I have millions of reasons to be thankful every day and without a doubt one of the reasons that remind me that I should be thankful is having lived through this explosion of technological development.
I remember learning to use a typewriter as a child, but it was not something that excited me. Soon it was time to learn to use the first computers that arrived at home, I found it amazing to be able to play those games that today, remembering them, seem to me to be from the Palaeolithic era but which I looked forward to with great excitement because they allowed me to spend a little time next to that screen.
Later came the world of the Internet connection; we waited nervously for six o’clock in the evening to arrive to hear that tone that would allow us to check our email or search for something in that new world that was beginning to open up.
For me it meant a freedom I had never experienced before. Suddenly I could resolve doubts, write to people and play games. All of this without needing help, without having someone at my side looking out for me, and that was just the beginning.
Since then, a world full of possibilities opened up for me, of new experiences, of hope for a professional future. Because when you have a 99% disability, when even for the most basic things like drinking water or scratching yourself you need someone to help you, the world of technology is a vital element in your life.
I have never used many applications; a simple on-screen keyboard and a trackball are the tools that give me the freedom I find when I am at my computer. From the moment I am placed in front of this great ally, my laptop, I feel as if I can suddenly run or climb a mountain. I feel free with a million things to do, to explore and to know. I enjoy that intimacy that allows me to have everything just a click away.
It’s hard to explain, but for a person like me who can’t do anything alone, to suddenly find that you can do everything is a very special experience. I try to imagine for a moment my life without technology and a little shiver runs through me because now for me it is an essential element, it is a bridge to a much-enjoyed freedom, they are wings that manage to lift me out of this wheelchair that has accompanied me for so many years, it is my ideal world without barriers.
And I take this opportunity to address all those who are dedicated to the development of technology: please, keep us always in mind. When you design a new device or develop a game or create so many things out of nothing that we cannot imagine, do not forget those of us who can only move two fingers and we are also waiting for them.
On many occasions, advances come along and people like me realise that no-one stopped to think about how much enjoyment and excitement this novelty would bring those who encounter constant barriers in the real world. May technology not be just another barrier in this world, but may it help us to continue advancing and changing our lives forever.
Educating also means postponing the reward
Marian Rojas Estapé is a psychiatrist and author of the best-selling book in Spanish in 2020, “Cómo hacer que te pasen cosas buenas” (How to make good things happen to you).
The home should be a physical, psychological, social and spiritual space. Parents should be the first educators. To educate is to turn someone into a free and responsible person. To educate is to provide children with values that do not go out of fashion. One loves as one has been loved; love is like a boomerang.
Parents must have an educational model and fight to put it into practice, but knowing that the best strategy is to set an example, which means the living out of values: fighting for a good relationship between theory and practice, between what they say and what they do.
A good mother and father offer more than a hundred teachers; they are a domestic university. The family should be a school where the best lessons for life are learned. And now we must apply all this to the incorporation of technology in our homes as well.
We must take advantage of the digital world so that it brings out the best in our brains and not the worst. Because the screen soothes us, the screen gives us instant gratifications that allow us to feel recognised, loved.
But beware of the hormone that underlies the screen: dopamine. It is the hormone of pleasure, related to rich food, wine, video games, things that make us have fun and enjoy ourselves. The “likes” on social networks are sparks of dopamine.
We must not forget that the networks, according to their own founders, were created to be addictive, and in consultation screen addiction is treated in the same way as cocaine addiction. These addictions go through the same brain circuits. Our brain is not immune to constant screen exposure.
I am aware that technologies help and that they are good for many things, but we have to know how they work and how they activate our brain to cope in the best possible way.
Because we have become emotional drug addicts, we have become accustomed to receiving constant emotions and sensations. Companies realised this in Silicon Valley and transformed the economy into the attention economy. What matters to companies is to keep the user’s attention for as long as possible on a screen. And it is much easier to capture our impulses than to master them. Instant gratification, I want it and I want it now.
But if we think coldly about the only two things that really make us happy in this life because they fill the heart of a human being, they are: love (of a partner, of parents, of children) and a job well done, and neither of them are based on instant gratification. They are the opposite, I postpone rewards, I work on patience, I wait and I do not receive all the time what I am looking for and what I want. They require time, time, time, time, and nowadays we don’t know how to wait.
There is another area of the brain that is important to understand, the prefrontal cortex. It is this frontal area that is responsible for attention, concentration, problem solving and impulse control. It is what allows us to be superior beings. It is the one that prevents us from rushing to take someone else’s food, seduce someone else’s girlfriend, or steal someone else’s things. It is the one that allows us to get out of the way of things that are not good for us.
This prefrontal cortex matures over the years and is activated in the baby in three ways: with light, movement and sound. What do we want from our children’s prefrontal cortex? We want them to be able to pay attention to immobile things. If I give them a mobile phone when they are a few months or a few years old, I am overstimulating them, and there is a mechanism called “use it or lose it”, which prevails with screens.
We need to postpone the use of the screen by children. If we, who were raised without screens, depend on mobile phones, imagine children. It is I who dominate the device and not the device that dominates me. We have to curb overstimulation. Boredom is the cradle of creativity. If we don’t know how to manage stress, and every time we get angry we pick up the phone, we don’t know how to manage anxiety.
Those who don’t know how to manage these problems end up with frustration and tolerance problems. Screens bring very positive things, but we must be the ones to master the screens.
Here are three ideas:
1. Remove notifications from the screen as they weaken my prefrontal cortex
2. Postpone the reward. I feel like something now, I don’t do it. My father, who is a sage of willpower, says that “a strong-willed person goes further than a smart person”.
3. Let’s curate our attention. Let’s reconnect with real life. Let’s take time to ask people how they are doing.
Continue reading: The Impact of Digital Technology in the Home. Edited by Ángela de Miguel, Head of Communication, Home Renaissance Foundation, London.