Here’s How To Save Your Family From Technology Creep

Here’s How To Save Your Family From Technology Creep

The more time we spend on our various technological devices, the less time we spend together as a family. How do we fix this problem?
Gracy Olmstead
By

For the average American family, carving out space for simple, face-to-face fellowship seems like an increasingly difficult task. There are myriad reasons for this. Two-parent families are increasingly dual-income households, and thus balancing a 9-to-5 work schedule with parenting, housework, grocery shopping, and their children’s extra-curriculars.

Many children don’t just have school in the mornings and afternoons: they have soccer practice, flute or ballet lessons, choir, AWANA or Boy or Girl Scouts, homework, etc. We often—even inadvertently—sign up for more than we can handle, then find ourselves overwhelmed by social, scholastic, or communal obligations.

This is why the University of Denver’s Lynn Schofield Clark told NPR this week that “We have set up a society where it’s structurally very difficult for families to spend time together.”

Smart Devices Affect Family Time

Clark wasn’t just talking about the physical tasks and barriers that make family time difficult. She made this statement because of a new, lethal bevy of technological temptations that often pull families apart. According to nonprofit organization Commonsense Media, 98 percent of homes in the United States now contain a mobile device, such as a tablet or smartphone. That’s up from 52 percent just six years ago.

“The average amount of time our smallest children spend with those handheld devices each day is skyrocketing, too: from five minutes a day in 2011, to 15 minutes a day in 2013, to 48 minutes a day in 2017,” NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz adds.

Forty-two percent of small children now have their own device. That’s up from 7 percent four years ago, and less than 1 percent in 2011. Almost half of children ages eight and younger use devices “often or sometimes” before bed in the evening—a habit that experts say can harm their sleep habits.

Perhaps one of the most shocking statistics that Commonsense Media shares, however, is the fact that nearly half (42 percent) of U.S. families report that they leave the television on “always” or “most of the time” in their home, regardless of whether someone is watching. “Research has shown this so-called ‘background TV’ reduces parent-child interaction, which in turn can hurt language development,” Kamenetz writes.

All these technological activities influence a family’s ability to step away from the frenzy and spend time together.

Controlling Our Devices (and Vices)

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that we should reject all TV-watching or device-using: embracing an Amish existence may be beneficial in some ways, but it’s unlikely to result in grown children who know how to use our world’s pervasive technologies wisely.

In addition, it must be noted that there is a proper time and place for these technologies: for all their flaws and faults, they are also useful tools. Any person with dispersed and scattered family can be thankful for the role FaceTime, Skype, and Facebook have played in keeping their relatives together. Any parent who works from home is thankful for laptops and Wi-Fi.

But it’s also very hard to set boundaries and enforce moderation for technology. I let my daughter watch her favorite Netflix show more often than I’d like, and use my computer and phone more often in front of her than I should. Some of that activity is heavily influenced by my job; some of it is, I readily admit, the result of temptation to check email, the news, and social media feeds.

Parenting is a difficult (albeit deeply rewarding) discipline. It is often a battle with the imperfect—in ourselves, in our children, and in our circumstances. Throwing devices into the mix have not made parents’ lives easier, by any means. They are another pervasive and addictive presence that we must attempt to control in both our lives, and in the lives of our children.

Ways to Fight Technology Creep

Because this is no easy task, I consulted some parents, asking for their advice and input on setting aside family time and pushing away devices. Here’s what some of them said.

  • “At this point we just don’t allow our kids screen time. We see no benefits for it at these ages, and definitely a ton of downsides. Occasionally there is something on an iPhone or tablet which sounds incredibly convenient (a phonics program!), but through God’s providence, that wasn’t a possibility for us. And I have been so enjoying the special one-on-one time of teaching my oldest son to read!”
  • “The best thing I’ve done when I’m at home with the kids is reduce notifications for apps, turn the volume up so I know if I’ve received a call/text, and then leave my phone in one specific place (up and away). The biggest thing to reducing my daughter’s desire to be on a screen is to reduce my own.” 
  • “None of our kids have their own iPads. We have one iPad that we let them use on airplanes and travel, along with two old-school video players. For the doctor’s office, two are now old enough to read, so I make them bring books.”
  • “My brother, who has seven kids ranging in age from 1 to 13, has this elegant solution: none of his kids have phones.”
  • “Our kids won’t get smartphones until at least eighth grade. I might get the oldest an old-fashioned flip phone when he’s in middle school and more mobile.”
  • “My husband and I try to hide our phones after 5:00 or after work stuff is done. This is very hard, but we’re improving. And they’re never out during meals.”
  • “We’ve tried to find TV shows that we like to watch together. ‘Planet Earth’ is amazing. So is ‘Finding Bigfoot.’ But we generally only have the kids watch TV once during the week and then let the kids binge watch it on Saturday mornings while we sleep in.”
  • “I have a friend who makes people put their phones in a big bucket before parties/gatherings/holidays. Particularly holidays like Easter or Thanksgiving. It is brilliant. The only downside would be photos, I suppose.”
  • “We don’t use our cell phones.  They are for back-up in the cars. That means we don’t text or have a constant alert to check for things.”

Good Behavior Starts With Mom and Dad

A few important things showed up throughout respondents’ thoughts: many noted that children obviously watch and mimic what their parents do. That puts a huge burden on parents to use technology wisely, and moderately. As one parent put it, “The hardest part is what they call ‘modeling good behavior.’”

The second thing I saw was a widespread belief that children don’t need their own devices. In our society, children and parents are bombarded with advertisements for cool gadgets. We’re led to believe that our children need these educational tools (or that we as parents need them in order to survive these oft-chaotic years). But at an age where many children are pleasantly entertained with sticks and mud, a cardboard box, or a few measuring cups and some water, why buy them a tablet worth hundreds of dollars?

An additional trick my mother-in-law has used throughout the years is called “blankie time.” When she made dinner or worked on a 30-minute project, she’d spread a quilt on the ground, put a few toys on it, and let her baby or toddler play on the quilt. She trained them to know that during blankie time, you could not step off the quilt—but you could enjoy all the toys on it. Blankie time doesn’t just teach self-control—it teaches contentment. It also gives parents that precious few minutes they may need to get dinner in the oven, or the laundry folded.

Technology Doesn’t Save Time

Living with today’s distractions can make family time hard. But it isn’t impossible. More often than not, we must admit that technology presents us parents with an “easy way out”—out of discipline, training, or the tedium of reading the same children’s book over and over. But by choosing that way out, we unknowingly sacrifice a multitude of precious moments: moments spent helping a young child learn a new letter or color, connecting with an older one over his or her favorite book, helping a Lego enthusiast to put together his or her newest creation, or playing a board game after dinner’s put away.

When we think about the time technology saves, we’re not always thinking about the time we lose to it. Redeeming precious moments can only happen if we’re not too distracted to see and embrace them.

Gracy Olmstead is associate managing editor at The Federalist and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.

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