Brian Hamilton: The device has become our vice | TheUnion.com

Brian Hamilton: The device has become our vice

The girl with long brown hair hopped into the passenger seat and offered a quick "Hi."

I replied, but had to take it on faith, with her face buried in her smartphone screen, that this was in fact my 13-year-old daughter and not Cousin It.

"How was school?" I asked.

"Good," she said, thumbing out what I assumed to be another text message.

But before we parents begin our next lecture about putting the phone down, we’d do well to take a long look in the mirror ...

"Did you do anything interesting today?"

"Not really," she said, still not lifting her eyes from the device.

A minute or two later, as I mulled a question that could actually evoke a conversation, I smiled as she broke the silence.

Then, of course, I realized she wasn't speaking to me.

"Turn on Low Power Mode," she said, drawing an "OK" from Siri and "aw shucks" from Dad.

Kids these days, right?

Wrong. Let's be honest, this fascination with our screens isn't only child's play. Mom and Dad do it, too.

Who's got two thumbs and his nose pretty much pressed against that portal to the world 24/7? This guy!

It's bad. I know, because my wife gives me grief over the glow at bed time. Yeah, I took it there. But don't let her kid you. We're both guilty. Our careers have us constantly communicating or searching for information on our phones, in addition to catching up with family and friends on Facebook.

So when it comes to screen addiction, I'm pretty sure we're not setting the best examples.

It's a hot topic, on the local level and beyond. KVMR hosted, and live broadcasted, another of its town hall discussions on "screen dependency" at the Nevada Theatre Tuesday night. In addition to other panelists, psychotherapist and author George Lynn was the featured expert. He is co-author of a new book, "Breaking the Trance: A Practical Guide for Parenting the Screen-Dependent Child."

Lynn says the book is written for the "middle of the curve" in terms of media use, which he says amounts to eight hours a day of screen time for the average middle school student and 11 to 14 hours a day for high schoolers.

"It does change kids," Lynn said on the Thom Hartman radio talk show. "The end result of too much social media, and in fact too much video-gaming, is high anxiety. So what we have when a child gets highly anxious, they lose a sense of themselves.

"And what we're saying in this book is that if parents don't get a handle on this … a kid's identity isn't going to develop. He's not going to have a sense of himself."

But it's not only the brains of children being impacted, as reported in Anderson Cooper's "Brain Hacking" segment in the April 9 edition of 60 Minutes. Former Google product manager Tristan Harris went so far as to suggest Silicon Valley engineers are "shaping thoughts, feelings and actions of people" or actually "programming people."

Been awhile since your phone alerted you to a text? Got an urge to take a look, you know, "just to check in"? A large number of folks are so hooked, they say they've experienced "phantom vibration syndrome," when they think their phone is ringing or vibrating when it's actually not.

There's a reason for that, if not an app — yet.

"There is a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible," Harris said, noting the rewarding feeling (that scientists suggest amounts to a dopamine rush) of receiving "likes" on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

An example Harris shared was Snapchat's "streaks," which shows number of days in a row that a user messages back and forth with someone. The reward in the "gamification" aspect of keeping the streak alive becomes a pretty big deal, particularly to teens like our daughters.

When a streak ends, it doesn't necessarily mean there is a problem with person on the other end. Our 13 year old says her longest current streak has stretched to 101 days of consecutive connections with a friend.

"It just means you didn't take the phone somewhere, or you forgot or there was some glitch when you sent it," she said. "Or, yeah, I guess it could mean they might be mad at you, but not usually."

Concerns over whether children will also impacted in their ability to socialize, to actually talk to another live person, in person, are often raised by those of us who didn't grow up with this technology at our finger tips. And although there's so much still to learn on the impact of smartphones, both to the development of the human brain and the overall health of the human body, one thing that seems clear to me is that all that staring at the screen isn't making them any dumber.

They are smart. They are plugged in. They know where to get the info they want.

If anything, these screens might be making them more self-centered, some suggest even to the extent of narcissism with all those "selfies" sent via Snapchat or Instagram.

But before we parents begin our next lecture about putting the phone down, we'd do well to take a long look in the mirror — and not the one about to snap a self-portrait — and consider our own dependency on this device that seems to have quickly become quite a vice.

Brian Hamilton is editor of The Union. Contact him at bhamilton@theunion.com or 530-477-4249.