By Brenda Haas, LMSW, Ed.M.
Most of us react instantaneously and mindlessly to the “ping” on our smartphone, alerting us to that text, news flash, or “like” on our Facebook feed. Families eat together at a restaurant, but their necks are turned down as they check their individual devices. Digital distractions consume our time, influence our behavior, and affect our relationships and even our mood. A recent study conducted by the Center for Humane Technology found that people check their phones more than 150 times per day. Screens have reshaped our children’s social lives by replacing face-to-face or even voice-to-voice connections with virtual friendships, two-word texts, Instagram and Facebook likes, fear of missing out (FOMO), and video games, like Fortnite
On one hand, all of us are more connected than ever. We can reach our friends and family with a quick text and contact long-lost acquaintances via social media channels. But how connected are we really to each other?
Sherry Turkle Ph.D., a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has studied digital culture for three decades and identified a disturbing consequence of overdependence on technology as a flight from conversation everywhere. In our screen-saturated world, children and parents are left to compete for each other’s attention. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, she argues it is imperative to protect our relationships and reconnect in conversation, face-to-face.
We need to keep in mind that conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. When we give ourselves and our children the space for conversation, we create an opportunity to engage authentically, collaborate on problem solving, and develop and show empathy. Child development research has proven that parents are the pivotal models of healthy communication and behavior.
Screens and technology are in our landscape to stay. But how do we make sure that our in-person communication is not hijacked by tech devices that end up making us feel distanced and disconnected from others?
• We can strengthen and support children by creating unplugged time together and tech-free zones. Setting healthy limits on screen time and device use, for all family members, helps protect our children’s emotional and physical health, relationships, decreases stress and anxiety, and can improve sleep.
• Encourage honest family discussions about tech-dependence and quality in-person communication. Mindful listening, paying attention without distraction, can begin at the dinner table, and be demonstrated while working on a puzzle together, or taking a walk.
• Model moderation for children. We can put away our smart-phone, close our laptop, and prioritize the value of eye contact, play, humor, and deeper relationships. By doing this, we enhance self-regulation, patience, and respect for family and tech rules.
• Engage in meaningful conversation and story-telling. This fosters our children’s identity development, self-compassion, and confidence. It helps validate their experiences, in person, in real time.
Being fully present with our children demonstrates care and consistency, nurtures curiosity, builds healthy social and emotional development, and increases joy, gratitude, and connection.
Brenda P. Haas, LMSW, Ed.M. is Coordinator of Guiding Parents Through Services (GPS) and a Partners in Schools Consultant at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester for WJCS. Learn more about WJCS Partners in Schools program and other initiatives at wjcs.com.