Does Self-Control Come in an App?

Parents and educators alike are buzzing about this new cure for our distracted, multitasking children. The name of the app? SelfControl.
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Last night, I got a PTA alert about a software application that allows users to block access to email and websites such as Facebook, while retaining use of the larger web for self-selected time periods. Parents and educators alike are buzzing about this new cure for our distracted, multitasking children.

The name of the app? SelfControl.

Certainly, children are inundated with info-streams, enticing video playgrounds and constant opportunities to visit the virtual party of Facebook. The average 8- to 18-year-old devotes more than seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media on a typical day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About half of young people use media most or some of the time they're doing homework.

At the same time, young children and even teens often don't yet have the cognitive capability to say no to distractions. The parts of their brains -- the frontal lobes -- that underlie higher-order will and thought continue to develop into their 20s.

Still, will flipping a switch to darken distractions help children to cultivate their powers of self-control? Or is such software just a quick fix for a hurried age? Similar software -- "Freedom," "Concentrate," "Cold Turkey" -- is proliferating. Are we once again leaping to adopt technologies, and then asking questions about how they shape us?

Humans, of course, are tool users. We close doors to create privacy. We reach for Post-It notes and apps to augment memory. Perhaps SelfControl, a free OS X application developed in 2010 by a high school student who is now an undergrad at Columbia University, helps augment our will power by guarding the boundaries that we repeatedly fail to respect ourselves. Sometimes our monkey minds do need external handcuffs.

But we should think more carefully about how we're using SelfControl and other such apps, and whether we really want to hand them off to young children as ready solutions for taming overload.

At the least, using this app should be accompanied by lots of conversation about the ways we use technology and the subtle value systems that accompany their use. We've long equated speed with intelligence in the U.S.; the first hand up in the classroom is considered the smart kid. If we dole out apps such as "focus" or "will power" or maybe someday "empathy" to our children, we are subtly giving them the message that complex, difficult human faculties can be obtained with a click. That's akin to doling out Ritalin while ignoring the environmental factors that have been shown to influence attention-deficiencies.

Placing these apps center-stage in our battle to tame technology ignores the effort and time needed to nurture self-control -- and ultimately diminishes a sense of our own potential. It sounds passe to talk about patience as a "virtue," as my Depression-era Dad did. But mastering a skill would be a hollow achievement if we could do so in a digital instant.

And as decades of research by Roy Baumeister, Walter Mischel and others show, self-control is a difficult skill that's worth mastering. Along with intelligence, will power is arguably the most crucial means to a successful school and adult life. And it can be trained.

How do we help children cultivate their willpower? Teach them to respect the integrity of a moment. An interruption has ripple effects, breaking into and potentially clouding ongoing thought, while boosting stress and the risk of error, a wealth of studies show. Heavy multi-taskers are "suckers for irrelevancy," says Stanford's Clifford Nass.

Set up rules about media use. Sounds basic, but just three in 10 children under 18 are given any parental rules about how much TV and other media they can consume. Helpless parents now feel they cannot shape our increasingly all-embracing media environment. Yet when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media, studies show. Moreover, the very existence of a reasonable rule effectively shows children that the seeming unmanageable in life at least partially can be tamed.

Sure, when my teenage daughters are under deadline, inundated, and over-caffeinated, they might want to download SelfControl for a while. But as my 10th grader said with a laugh when I told her about this application, "Mom, that's not self-control!"

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