Seattle's Child

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Connect with kids not technology

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Making connection: A discussion with author Catherine Steiner-Adair

"Work to create family experiences that compete with screens."

The book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age was published in 2014, but resonates even more today as kids’ exposure and access to wide -ranging technology continues to escalate. In these pages, authors Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker call parents who put digital connections ahead of connection with their kids on the carpet. We asked Steiner-Adair how families can healthfully engage with technology. Her edited responses are below.

Seattle’s Child: Is using technology with mindfulness and balance possible for children to achieve alone? Is there an age when children should have NO exposure to technology? Is that realistic?

I take a strong position in support of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advisory of no screens from 0 to age 2, no more than an hour for ages 3 to 5 (and be sure it’s good content; Common Sense Media is a great resource). I agree with Alex Soojung-Kim Pang – it’s all about mindfulness, being in control, having self control and being thoughtful about what, where, when, and how you and your kids are using tech. Be mindful that there is a world of difference between playing soccer outside and soccer online. There are wonderful ways to engage online, and it can also drain your and your child’s inner life.

Work to create family experiences that ‘compete’ with screens. In other words, come up with compelling outings that are offline, use vacations as times to explore together, work as a team (on and offline) and have big chunks of offline time.

If I had a newborn, I might really change how I interact with technology around my kids after reading your book. But my kids are older and the exposure has already happened. What can I do to temper the spirit of addiction that much of information technology seems to foster today?

Hang out with them, talk to them, show interest in what they are interested in. In other words, work hard to stay connected to them: When left to their own devices, they will plug into their own devices. Help them find something of interest and gravitas that they are truly curious about, and help them develop expertise in that area. Teens and young adults thrive when they are working hard at something hard, learning or creating something that is challenging, that they have chosen.

Connect these interests to sites online and online learning communities. I would talk about who the innovators are and how they got there: Steve Jobs in his garage, the fact that many Google higher-ups send their kids to Waldorf Schools and have strict limits, that you can use tech to deepen your self and your mind and your creativity, or drain your own resources and time.

Get mindful, intentional. Learn to set limits on trash. Talk about addiction, do a family offline challenge. Talk about physical, emotional and sexual safety (walking down the street while texting is NOT safe). Laugh but drive home the safety issues and be sure not to text and drive yourself. Model self-control and safety. Also talk about the safety issues with online nastiness (porn, etc). Stay calm. Keep the family a ‘language lab’ for talking in real life.

What are your top five rules for keeping family sustainable in the face of an increasingly technology-driven society?

1. The sustainable family recognizes the pervasive presence of tech in today’s world and develops a family philosophy about using it that reflects and supports the family’s values and well-being.

2.The sustainable family encourages play – and plays together.

3. A sustainable family nourishes meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations and optimism. The family has built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency, and not ‘just trust me’ but ‘here’s why.’

4. The sustainable family has values, wisdom, a link to past and future, some common language that they share with family and friends.

5. Sustainable families provide experiences offline in which children can experience and cultivate an inner life, solitude and connection to nature.

 What are your biggest personal fears about the long-term impacts of tech on today’s families?

Children want to feel connected to a strong and loving family. Tech is many things, and can be quite wonderful, but children still need adults to pay attention to them, to hug them, to read to them. They want to feel like they matter to their parents. When a parent takes a call and disconnects from their child, the message is “Whoever is calling is more important than you.” If it’s your boss it might be true and they can understand that, but when it’s endless interruption, they feel sad, mad, lonely and sometimes hopeless. When texting replaces talking, we are losing an essential way of communicating.

Finally, what specific ways can parents model optimal tech use for kids? Especially busy parents trying to work and be present to kids?

  • Have clear times when you are offline and present to your kids.
  • Wake up earlier, do your morning email before greeting them, and stay off until they are out the door.
  • Keep the carpool tech-free at each end of the school day.
  • Keep screens off the table, even at nighttime.
  • Don’t take calls mid-sentence with your spouse. Treat your family as priority.
  • Think about good manners and what you are modeling.
  • Don’t text and drive.
  • Don’t have a fight that they overhear.
  • Don’t post pictures of them without asking first.

More at Seattle’s Child:

Surgeon General issues ‘urgent’ warning re kids and social media

Technology’s Child book

Navigating childhood friendship in a digital world

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin