Connected or Connecting?

The smart phone has almost become a given in our society.  I know this because I am one of the few remaining people who has a plain old cell phone (generally along with those over the age of 60 who don’t need one for work).  Mine does nothing but call, text, and take really crappy pictures.  Anytime anyone sees it, they look like they’re seeing a relic from the 1800s. Or if I tell people I don’t have a smart phone, I’m often met with, “But why?”  I can afford one, my husband has one, and in fact everyone I know has one.  Even my mom had just gotten one before she died.  So why?  It’s actually a good question.

I know at this point many of you who can’t imagine life without your iPhone or Blackberry or Android are scoffing.  I know how important and useful these pieces of technology have been and I realize this new technology helps my husband work from home some days, allowing me to take doctor’s appointments or be sick.  These phones add a means of communication (video) that helps families keep in touch from afar, often way better than Skype (and easier as you don’t have to sit at a laptop for the whole call).  And of course, you can find the nearest Starbucks wherever you are and who doesn’t love that?

But here’s why I’ve avoided so far:  I have seen the effects of too much phone and technology use on people’s relationships with their kids.  I have seen young children screaming, pleading, and crying for attention to a parent who is too absorbed in whatever is on that phone to even look up for a moment.  I have seen the half-assed answers given to children who are telling their stories because their parents aren’t actually listening, but focused entirely on whatever is on the little screen in front of them.  I have seen children give up and walk away, head hung low when they realize the futility of trying to get an adult to pay them some attention.  Having seen these moments but also realizing that not all parents are like this at all, I also know myself and my own addictive traits when it comes to technology.  I struggle to turn my laptop off for periods and have had weekend days where I suddenly realize four or five hours have passed and I haven’t really engaged with anyone in a meaningful way because I’ve been busy either writing or online (usually both).  So I abstain and I can’t help but think some others would do well to either cut back or abstain as well.

I believe the question we have to ask ourselves is: What is the middle ground?  Technology is a valuable part of our lives and arguably makes our lives easier in many ways, but there is no denying that too much has negative effects on our relationships with others.  In my opinion, the middle ground will vary for each family, but starts with setting up some real rules about parental use of technology in the house.  Many homes have strict rules for how much technology kids can use, such as how much TV time is allowed, how much time they spend online, or how much time is spent playing video games.  We owe it to ourselves to set similar standards for the adults of the house and any adult we bring into the home.

How do you do this?

Step 1.  Identify the times you’re overusing your technology (be it phone, laptop, iPad, etc.).  If your kids are old enough, ask them as they probably have a better grasp than you do.  Ask your partner as well – you’d be amazed how many people I’ve spoken to who have some pretty strong opinions about their partner’s tech usage.

Step 2.  Decide the times you least need to use it.  If you’re guilty of using it too much as you walk in the door, but know that any emails or work that comes in at that time can actually wait an hour or two, make that hour or two your first “tech-free” time.

Step 3.  Make sure you use this downtime to engage with your family or friends.  Start to realize the benefits of sitting down with your 5-year-old to hear about everything they did that day, including digging in the dirt or finding sticks.  Look at them and see the joy they have in sharing with you these moments.  This is why you’re cutting back.

Step 4.  As you get used to that first bit of tech-free time, add some more.  Ridding yourself of the chains holding you to technology is incredibly liberating and often it gets easier to cut back until you find the perfect balance of use and non-use.

I want to also talk about the rules we set up for individuals who come into our house.  Sometimes it’s not just parents, but family friends or even babysitters who come in and spend their time on their phone while your child sits in front of the TV.  Making sure that everyone knows the rules in your house is important for everyone involved.  That said, I have to share that we have two babysitters who come regularly and they both are incredible when it comes to this.  Without ever having been asked, they take their phones out of their pockets and leave them at the front of the house before coming in to play.  Seeing that gave me hope for our future generations in that they will have the tools already in place to use and appreciate technology but not let it overtake them.


By Tracy Cassels

January 13, 2014