Families are struggling as they figure out how to cope with family members isolating and plugging into their technology. We've lost the boundaries where parents could easily protect the childhoods of their children. Partners notice how distracted their partner is. Work emails can bleed into evening and weekend space as it shows up on your iPad or iPhone. Children complain about parents that won't put down their phones; parents complain about teenagers doing the same thing.
There is an unspoken message being delivered anytime we are using technology that the person you are presently with is not the most important. It feels bad to be ignored. We long for breaks from feeling plugged-in and anxious. We need deep connection, but it's getting harder to protect emotional space and time for it. We long for being present with intimate others without distraction and multi-tasking. This generation of young people is known as "always on."
What's a family to do?
Psychologist, Harvard Medical School instructor, and writer Catherine Steiner-Adair has written an excellent new guide called The Big Disconnect (Harper Collins Books, 2013). Her book has lots of valuable reminders, such as:
1. Children and teens can't set reasonable limits. You need to be the parent and set off times.
2. Children and families still need time for independent, creative, self-generated play.
3. Make mealtimes family and connecting time: no technology of any kind. Children and parents need to practice and role model social skills and the art of connecting.
4. Don't miss your baby's, child's, or teen's important developmental moments because you are texting.
5. Help preschoolers learn to identify and manage their emotions, learn to take turns, and be patient.
Screen time can't help teach any of those soft skills. They are developed through 1:1 interaction.
6. Have conversations with your children and grandchildren of all ages, including eye contact. These are valuable zones of interaction. Story time or reading together with young children is better than iPad time.
7. Try not to use technology to get children to be quiet or not need you.
8. Be aware how technology accelerates exposure to gender stereotypes, sexuality, aggression, violence, and "cool to be cruel" comments on blogs and social media. Discuss these issues with your children at different developmental points.
9. Beware putting computers and televisions in your children's rooms too early, such as before 13. You may never see them.
10. Facebook and Instagram can emphasize a culture of obsessing about presentation of one's public self.
11. Text messaging gives an artificial sense of pre-planned wittiness and a false sense of confidence. It doesn't translate to in-person social skills.
12. Be an approachable parent, so that your children know they can talk with you about their concerns, and you won't lecture or overreact. In Dr. Steiner-Adair's research, she has learned that kids and teens won't open up and approach parents who are "scary, crazy, or clueless." Scary parents get judgmental, too intense, and harsh. Don't be reactive or hot-headed, or your children won't open up to you about their challenges. Crazy parents hold grudges, and email teachers and coaches when their child doesn't get what they want. Clueless parents are naïve, ineffective, passive, and act like their child's best friend.
13. The best approach is to become a parent who is informed, calm, approachable, and realistic.
The Big Disconnect is well worth reading. It will help you think through keeping the balance of using technology to your advantage, but not being mindless about letting it take over your family's life and connectedness. Don't sit passively by as your family ties loosen.
Engage your children. Simple contracts that your child or teen understands and signs about the conditions for the privilege of using a cell phone you pay for may be a good idea. Encourage texting only about quick details, not as a way to avoid conversations in person. Get the password for the phone, so that if their safety is in danger you can intercede. No sleeping with your phone. Technology has a bedtime. No phones at meals or family times. Ask your children to help you plan some fun time together that doesn't involve technology.