By Kristen Jordan Shamus
Detroit Free Press
We are slaves to our mobile phones, even at dinner.
We can’t make it through the day, let alone an hour, without checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other social apps.
When we are supposed to be giving our kids breakfast, getting them ready for bed or even in the car driving, the lure of technology tugs, making us feel as if we’re missing something if we’re not ever-vigilant, always checking for updates.
This is life for many of us in 2013.
Our hyperconnectivity, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist who’s making headlines for her new book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” (HarperCollins, $26.99), is a huge problem.
It’s a problem not just for the lack of focus it brings to our own lives, but for what it’s doing to our children.
“This is not a simple time, and the big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple,” she writes. “The answers are nuanced, and we have to be willing to hold the complexities and think deeply about their implications, resist facile, fast-twitch answers that insist ‘the kids are all right.’ The kids are not all right. Not completely.”
A clinical instructor in the psychology department at Harvard Medical School, Steiner-Adair tells the stories of many of the 1,000 kids she interviewed over four years while working on the book.
Some of them are heartbreaking; they also ring a little too true.
How many of us have parked our kids in front of “Dora the Explorer” or “Good Luck Charlie” for 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to make a work call, prepare dinner in peace, get something done?
How many of us have flipped on the Wii or the Xbox and said, “I just need a few minutes,” kids, but by the time we return our attention to them, inadvertently a full hour has passed?
“A lot of the disappointment involves kids giving up. Little moments of promises broken, of feeling let down. Dad was supposed to read with me. Mom said she’d play a board game,” Steiner-Adair writes. “Teens offer an older version of the same yearning: I don’t see why Mom can’t just not take a call when we’re talking — she’s always telling me that’s what I’m supposed to do. I know Dad’s busy, but it’s like nothing I do is important enough to really matter to him.”
It’s crushing to think about letting down our families in this way.
But, as Steiner-Adair told me in a recent phone interview, we’re also letting them down in other really important ways. We’re often too permissive about technology; we don’t monitor their use closely enough; we don’t often set limits kids need, and though they’ll never admit it, limits they crave.
Among the key things parents should consider, she says, is to establish unplugged time in the family’s daily routine.
“Decide what times of day are going to be tech-free times of day,” she says. “And ones I would recommend are: get up before your children wake up to deal with e-mails if you need to. But as soon as you wake those little ones up, until they are at school, just be unplugged. They need your attention. When you pick your children up, don’t be on the phone. Your kids want to know that you are, in fact, excited to see them. And in that moment, they need your eye contact. They need you to smile. They need you to listen and not say, ‘one sec,’ not be put on hold.
“Bedtime is another time. Just leave screens out of the bedroom. And certainly, meals.”
Vacation time, she says, ought to be time off from work, time away from the lure of social media, conference calls, e-mails and texts.
And, now is the best time each year to take a hard look at your family’s tech habits, and draft a plan to live by.
“Before school starts, come up with a family responsible use compact. ... Here’s what you’re allowed to do on our family computer. Here’s what you’re not allowed to do. And if you do stuff you’re not allowed to do, you’ll lose access to the computer. Here’s what this phone is for, here’s what it’s not for. Use it responsibly. If you don’t, you’ll lose it,” she says.
“And then continue to talk about what they’re doing. What games they’re playing, what sites they’re going to, live online in the same way you would about asking your kids who they played with at recess. You know, it has to be part of your ongoing conversation.”
As kids get older, they’re more likely to try to get away with things, to hide their online escapades. And it’s up to us to show them that we’re going to be vigilant, that we will have their passwords. And be up front about it.
“Get help setting up filters at home, and on your computers at home,” says Steiner-Adair. “They’re not always going to work. But most of all, always tell your kids you’re doing it so it doesn’t turn into a spying dynamic. It’s about safety. And if they protest, and say ‘This is private,’ then, you know, say, ‘Uh-uh. It is NOT private. Nothing online is private.’ And that’s a great conversation right there to have with them.”
And work hard on being a parent kids will turn to when they get into trouble.
“Be approachable, be calm, be informed,” Steiner-Adair says. “The thing about being informed doesn’t mean you need to know everything about technology. You just need to understand life. Help your child get through the current crisis of the day.”
Don’t, she says, be the parent who overreacts, intensifies drama or who underreacts to problems.
“The young adults I spoke with were concerned about themselves and their future,” she says. “They would say things like, ‘You know, it’s such a paradox: We’re the most connected generation ever but we’re really bad about being close, and vulnerable and open.’
“I don’t know what it will mean (for our future), but I wrote the book hoping it would help people push refresh or push pause. Restart and think about how we all are relating to each other.”