David Phillips: Turn off your phones to get lost, and find your way to your children

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

The stereotype of youth today making their way through the world with their eyes fixated on the screens of their phones, missing out on the world — and people — right in front of them, may need some updating. That’s because it isn’t only youth who appear addicted to their phones. Parents are modeling the behavior in front of their children.

A Louisiana elementary school recently had a writing project that revealed several students wishing phones were never invented because their parents are on them every day.

"We had a class discussion about Facebook and every single one of the students said their parents spend more time on FB then they do talking to their child. It was very eye opening for me," teacher Abbey Fauntleroy told USA Today newspaper.

There is even a name for it: “technoference.” A study conducted by Illinois State University and the University of Michigan Medical School found that technoference, or parent distraction with technology, is associated with child behavior problems.

Psychology Today magazine once cited five different studies detailing the effects of parents turning most of their attention to smartphones. Parents constantly on their phones have children who are more negative and less resilient, according to one research project. Another study showed children feel unimportant when having to compete with smartphones for parents’ attention. Other studies showed that distracted parents harm children’s social and emotional development as smartphones interfere with healthy parenting.

It isn’t just the parent-child relationship that technology is changing.

Closer to home, there have been several instances of people relying, or rather over-relying to the extent of replacing common sense, on GPS for navigation.

A local resident found a car stuck in his field drive recently. It turned out that the occupants’ GPS device directed them off the main road onto the field drive. They kept following the drive as it got rougher and rougher until they got stuck.

Something similar happened this winter when the area was hit by a monster storm. Fillmore County emergency management director Don Kullot noted that the dispatch office had calls from stranded motorists on Feb. 24. That wasn’t unusual since the storm caused problems throughout the region when the wind started blowing the large amount of snow that fell. The unusual part is that some of the stranded motorists had no idea where they were and/or were on back roads that hadn’t even been touched by a plow.

The reason these motorists became stranded is because they were blindly following their GPS devices without looking at the dangerous conditions around them. Their devices directed them to the shortest route, but not the most suitable route in blizzard-like conditions.

Personal GPS devices have only been common for a decade or two, yet today millions of people use them to know their location, get directions and avoid getting lost. They can be life-savers at times, but not only do they replace common sense at times when people blindly follow directions into dangerous situations, they are also altering perception and judgment by actually changing behavior in the brain.

A 2017 study published in Nature Communications monitored the brain activity in the hippocampus, which is integral to spatial navigation, of subjects in London who were asked to navigate a virtual simulation of the Soho neighborhood. The research report is very lengthy and complex, but journalist M.R. O’Connor, who writes about science, technology and ethics, broke it down for the Washington Post recently.

“When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them,” he wrote. “They pay less attention to their surroundings. And neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions.”

The hippocampus, though, isn’t just about navigation, as this portion of the brain allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It also allows us to recall events from the past, what is known as episodic memory, and, neuroscientists believe, even give us the ability to imagine ourselves in the future.

One of the authors of the study told O’Connor “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.”

Some people may ask why this matters since GPS, which is here to stay, provides such a convenient method to navigate. However, paying attention to the spatial relationships in our environment — using perception, empirical observation and problem-solving skills — can nourish “topophilia,” a sense of attachment and love for place, writes O’Connor. Exercising our hippocampus may even have a health benefit by helping offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.

“If we are paying attention to our environment, we are stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease,” neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot wrote O’Connor in an email. “When we get lost, it activates the hippocampus, it gets us completely out of the habit mode. Getting lost is good!”

So put down your phones and rely on your own senses for a while. You may get lost or miss out on the most recent Facebook post, but replacing your virtual connections with real-life connections will do wonders for the well-being of you and your family.