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Connecting families in an age of digital disconnect

Posted January 25

With newly minted teenagers in our home, as well as a husband who studies media as a profession, we talk a lot about technological influences and our relationship with the ubiquity of “smart” devices.

From my very informal observations of friends and family, most parents today are woefully naïve when it comes to what’s happening with their kids on phones, computers and tablets. They often introduce these devices to their kids too young (ask your son/daughter how many third-graders they know with smartphones) and allow them free rein of the internet and social media.

It’s this exact minefield that Catherine Steiner-Adair addresses in her book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Families in the Digital Age” (Harper, 2013).

“As adults, we may choose to mess with our minds and gamble with our own neurology,” she writes bluntly, “but I have never met a caring parent who would knowingly risk his or her child’s future this way. And yet we hand these devices — that we use the language of addiction to describe — over to our children, who are more vulnerable to problems of use and abuse and the impact of everyday use on their developing brains.”

Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist who works extensively as a consultant in schools, spends much of the book sharing statistics and anecdotes about how different ages interact with technology, addressing such topics as cyberbullying, pornography and the internet hookup culture. She doesn’t shy away from the explicit, graphic reality facing our teens and young children on their glittering smartphones.

However, more than the anecdotal evidence, what I found most helpful was the concluding chapter, in which she argues that the most influential way to combat the influences of technology is by creating a sustainable family.

“The sustainable family is a family that has created a fabric of connectivity that is strong and many layered,” she writes.

And, she adds, it’s really never too late to make changes toward becoming a sustainable family.

“I am endlessly moved by the way a family can adapt and grow and flourish," she writes. "Families respond to loving attention. They are the original renewable resource.”

According to Steiner-Adair, the sustainable family exhibits seven traits.

1. They recognize that technology is a part of today’s culture. Therefore, they develop a philosophy regarding technology that reflects their own values. In other words, families develop their own set of rules and values that adhere to their family goals.

2. A sustainable family takes time to play together.

3. A sustainable family “nourishes meaningful connections and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations and optimism.”

4. Independence among family members is encouraged, recognizing that every family member has unique talents and gifts to contribute to the group.

5. A sustainable family accepts that disagreement among its members is normal and has systems in place for the healthy exchange of differences.

6. There is a link to both the past and the future. Traditions and values allow for a common language, mantras or phrases to live by.

7. Finally, the sustainable family creates tech-free experiences “in which children can experience and cultivate an inner life, solitude and connection to nature.”

When I look around at the families that are making this new reality work for them, this is what I see. Most have strict guidelines around technology. Parents have open access to teenagers’ phones. They review their texts and browser history. They have limits regarding social media platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat. They have device check-in times.

Moreover, the kids are engaged in productive pursuits away from screens so as to cultivate a well-rounded, fulfilling social life. The families as a whole have hobbies, travel pursuits and interests that bring them together on a regular basis.

Steiner-Adair quotes author Neil Postman, who, in an incredibly prescient 1982 book titled “The Disappearance of Childhood,” wrote that the most rebellious act of all for the modern parent will be “the attempt to control the media’s access to one’s children.”

“It is not conceivable that our culture will forget that it needs children,” Postman wrote. “But it is halfway toward forgetting that children need childhood. Those who insist on remembering shall perform a noble service.”

Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the website Raise the Boys at raisetheboys.com, dedicated to rearing creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow it on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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