For all technology's advantages — speed, instantaneous communication and connection across great distances — is it possible that it also, in some measure, diminishes the quality of how we relate to one another and to ourselves?
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and author of the new book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” asks parents to consider the value of occasionally unplugging.
“We're all living through a revolution, and it's happening in our living rooms,” she said. “I worry what it's doing to our culture, and I worry what it's doing to children and to our families.”
She shared details from her book, which disseminates findings from three years of interviews conducted with more than 1,000 students, parents and educators on children, family relationships and the use of technology in the home.
“The question I wanted to ask is: Are we losing touch with some other ways of connection with each other?” Steiner-Adair said.
She found children spend an average of 11 hours a day in front of screens; parents log even more hours in such activities. She heard of a father texting while reading his daughter a bedtime story and parents taking calls at the dinner table or toting laptops to parks, beaches and family vacations. One youngster confided, “Mommy's cellphone is stupid.”
Steiner-Adair said it's easy to let emails, texts and calls interrupt family time. Neurologically, checking a device stimulates the brain's “to-do” center, which always wants to do one more thing. That “one more thing” mentality starts to control us, she said.
This is a feeling La Cañada parent Suzanne Jensen is familiar with. A mother of three young children, she admits to frequently checking her phone for updates and communications.
“I am one of those people who's gotten quickly addicted to checking,” she said. “A year ago I wasn't even texting. My friends kept saying to me, ‘I can't believe you don't text.'”
Now Jensen uses text messages to coordinate morning walks to school with other parents and check that the kids are safe and where they should be. But she admits Steiner-Adair's discussion got her thinking about her own usage. In preparation for last week's talk, she deactivated her Facebook page.
“Everything she said resonated with me tremendously,” Jensen said in an interview the next day.
To counterbalance the feeling of always wanting to do one more thing, Steiner-Adair advises parents to commit to staying unplugged at certain times throughout the day, including when their children wake up in the morning, on rides to and from school, during dinner and at bedtime.
She also suggests parents keep all devices in their rooms overnight to limit access so children can get a full night's sleep, and develop rules for usage that apply to all family members. The website commonsensemedia.org offers templates for responsible-use contracts and apps that disable the use of devices during indicated work periods.
“You have to, as a family, decide how you're going to use technology,” Steiner-Adair said.
La Cañada mom and prosecuting attorney Ruth Jordan said she and her husband use various devices for their jobs but try to keep their daughters, in the seventh and ninth grades, to a minimum of screen time.
Safety is an occupational mandate, Jordan says, so she guards her online privacy and asks her daughters and young women she leads in Girl Scouts to do the same.
“There are some really nasty things that happen to young girls online,” Jordan said. “I usually tell my daughters when they're going out to remember three rules: Be polite, be helpful and don't do anything stupid on the Internet.”
Steiner-Adair said a good first step in bringing family relationships front and center is relatively simple.
“Play together as a family,” she said. “Have fun. Your kids want to play with you and want you to want to play with them. Keep your promises when it comes to playing.”