Self Regulation in an Always On World

The need for people to be effective at self regulation has always flickr - langwitches - Learning then and Nowbeen important.  However, I believe its importance is greater today and increasing given the “always on world” we now live in.  When I was a kid, self regulation involved behaving properly, using proper table manners, putting my hand up in school, and being home for dinner on time.  I think things have become a little more complicated in these technology transformed times.

“Self control should increase with age due to the development of the sensory system. As the sensory system develops, people's perceptual abilities expand. For instance, children do not have a concept of time, and in this sense, they live in the present. However, as children age and develop into adults, they gradually gain the ability to comprehend the future consequences of their actions.”, Self-control. Wikipedia March 4, 2012.

Self-regulation (aka self-control) needs to be learned early on and it’s encouraging that this is something that, I understand, receives quite a bit of attention in our early learning (K-3) classrooms.  What I worry about though is what happens as young children grow up in a technology rich and highly distracting world.  Also, it’s shocking how young people and adults alike fail to self-regulate when they use amplifying social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook.  These tools too often bring the worst out in people.  When I see name calling, emotionally charged tweets from who I know to be iStock_000013270409XSmallgood, intelligent people, I see a failure to self-regulate.  A lack of self-regulation when using social media can at best embarrass and at worse get someone fired or sued for defamation of character.  What we say online is who people will believe we are and it never goes away, you can’t take it back, and it’s completely and globally public!  Even if you think you’re right or it’s true, it doesn’t make it appropriate to broadcast your thoughts online.  Maybe we can’t “save” adults from themselves but our school systems certainly aught to weave self-regulation learning in, K through 12 so as to raise up a generation of thoughtful people who easily and naturally self-regulate. 

Another area where self-regulation is crucial is in managing our focus, attention, and time in a world where our technology relentlessly beckons us.  I now use a laptop, an iPad, and a Windows 7 Phone.  I recall the days when all I had access to was a desktop computer at work and the same at home.  To check e-mail at home required a “trip” downstairs to the computer and it took forever to logon to get email.  Email reading/responding was an infrequent event ‘cause it was inconvenient.  My wife, kids, and I took turns accessing the computer then where as today I think there are about Play Blocks With Letters10 Internet connected devices in my home at any given time!  We now have über convenient access to email, social media, websites, ebooks, online games, online music, TV, and movies, etc.  It’s crazy how things have changed in 20 years or even the past 10.  The level of distraction today is unprecedented.  I know I struggle to leave my phone and iPad alone.  They are always present and available.   It is a significant struggle to not check if there’s a new email, tweet, or some other piece of information just waiting for me to consume and respond to.  It’s easy to cross a line and be disrespectful to those with whom you’re present by connecting to those who are not.  I think parents of young children have a seriously important job in understanding how and why their kids use technology today and guide and teach them to self-regulate their use. Reduced TV use but significantly increased handheld or online gaming is not a fair trade for kids!

Students and schools wrestle with the use of cell, smart phones, handhelds, tablets, and laptops in class.  Most teachers today see these tools as distractors not supporters of learning.  Or, think about school or District staff meetings and people with their laptops and smart phones doing email, using Twitter, or just off-task reading something else while the meeting is underway.  How can these tools possibly be useful when all they do is take us off to other places rather than remaining present and in the moment?  But hold on, this isn’t any different than passing notes in class or meetings 20 years ago, right?  Or perhaps before technology, people day dreamed more…

Although I understand the challenge teachers and meeting facilitators face, it does bother me when people blame the tools for poor behavior, being off task, etc. and ask participants to shut them off.  How can that possibly be the right answer when the tools bring so iStock_000016878193XSmallmuch power to your fingertips?  Tools are neither good or bad, they’re agnostic.  Behaviors though, are learned and can be modified.  In this always on world shouldn’t we be figuring out how to transform how classrooms are managed, lessons are taught and learned, and information is disseminated and transmitted?  I think so.  We should be redesigning how learning, teaching, and meeting works to maximize the beneficial use of the technology at our disposal or at least neutralize the distraction.  Otherwise, how will students and adults learn self-regulation and positive behaviors with the technology?    Howard Gardner states that “educational efforts are dedicated toward the acquisition of the appropriate disciplinary knowledge, habits of minds, and patterns of behavior” (Five Minds for the Future, Kindle 421).  Our schools are key partners with parents in instilling the discipline of self-regulation in students.

Our technology is increasing in quantity, power, convenience, accessibility and is not going away.  We had better get a handle on how we self-regulate our use of it, before it completely masters us.  We need to be masters of our technology, not the other way around.  Used effectively, technology is an enriching experience, opens doors previously closed, amplifies learning and communication, and stimulates imagination and creativity.  Embrace it and be a self-regulator.


  1. Hi Brian,

    Great post - thanks!

    As I watch myself and others with technology - whether it's what we're tweeting or how we can't resist seeing that latest email/txt msg/etc... - I'm struck by our needs for attachment and how those drive our behaviors.

    Gordon Neufeld describes attachment hunger as more fundamental than physical hunger - more necessary to survival, in fact!

    And that plays itself out with both adults AND children, as too many aren't able to "rest" in secure, healthy attachments - with ourselves or with others.

    Watching my own children and my ability to consciously parent/mentor them on a day to day basis, understanding attachment, my own needs/baggage and providing them with secure emotional supports has been the "soil" they need to grow independence, maturity and self regulation.

    Neufeld's "Hold On To Your Kids" and, in particular, the chapter on "Collecting our children" is an awesome resource for building the foundations of self regulation, in my opinion!

  2. @Heidi: Yes attachment needs would seem to be a natural human trait. I think most if not all people desire healthy vibrant friendships and family relationships. Even in relationships self-regulation plays a role in balancing ones time. There's a danger in losing yourself in others. The key in most things is to be balanced. It's the pendulum swings that mess us up! Thanks for sharing the Neufeld reference, will have to check that out.

  3. I'm saying that the exact same reasons we risk "losing ourselves" in others are also core to why we struggle with self regulation - attachment hunger doesn't mean we need a relationship, we need healthy and properly attached relationships. Big difference.

    Neufeld describes six ways of attaching and many people's main way is sensory - needing to be touching, seeing, hearing, talking with another person. Sound familiar? texting, facebook, twitter, sharing photos, videocalls, etc... All excellent tools that become addictive for some reason...

    My experience is that we turn the relationship "pendulum" into a foundation (solid and always there, supporting all we do) when we give our children healthy, fully rounded, unconditional love to rest and grow in. And then we connect and reconnect with them, over and over. (that's what that chapter I mentioned is about)

    Fact is, though, many of our "accepted" parenting strategies and school structures have the opposite effect - they separate us and make our children "work" for connection.

    I firmly believe that trying to teach many things, like self regulation, without first having solid attachment is like trying to build a house without a foundation - we can perhaps prop up the walls and find ways to put in floors, but ultimately, it's never quite solid...

    1. Hi Heidi - I suppose when I wrote this post I had a much more narrow perspective in mind. I like that you've broadened it for families. I'm not that familiar with writing on the topic of attachment. I'm a "self-taught" parent with three sons all grown up now. Each one had to go through stages of self-regulation challenges. The attachment piece was a fairly natural element of our family but even that ebbs and flows as kids grow, mature, and become indepdent. It's an interesting journey and parents have a very challenging and important job in creating a healthy environment. And, then help their kids learn to self-regulate, not only with technology, but in all aspects of their lives.


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