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OSU Extension

College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences

March 9, 2015 - 9:14am --

Laptops, iPads, iPods, smart phones and other technological gadgets seem to be taking over our pockets and purses with no end in sight.  Technology is everywhere!  According to a 2005 survey, most Americans, including children, spend at least nine hours a day watching TV, surfing the web, or talking on their cell phones.  This new technology can be a powerful tool altering our families and affecting the way we interact with each other in both positive and negative ways.

Many of us remember when dinnertime regularly brought the nuclear family together at the end of the day - everyone having finished work, homework, play, and sports.  Parents and children relaxed, shared their day's experiences, kept up with each other's lives, and actually made eye contact while they talked.  Now, in some homes, dinnertime tends to be a much more harried affair.  With emailing, video chatting, and TVs blaring, there is little time set aside for family discussion and reflection on the day's events.  Conversations at meals sometimes resemble instant messages where family members pop in with comments that have no connection with the conversation.  In fact, if there is time to have a family dinner, many family members tend to eat quickly and run back to their own computer, video game, cell phone or other digital activity.

I remember fondly the times in childhood when family provided entertainment.  Family game nights, family talent show nights, telling jokes, and silly conversations were used to fill any empty hours at home.  More and more families today turn to technology to keep them informed and entertained.  Leisure time is spent with families isolated in separate rooms.  Dad is on the phone, Mom is on the computer, and the kids are watching their favorite program on TV in their own rooms, and no one is talking to each other.

Psychologists are concerned that technology is breaking down family communication because it steals our attention and is often an individual pursuit. Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together, talks about a study that she did with parents and children regarding their opinions of technology.  She thought she would find many parents that were annoyed that their children are always on their phone or computer.  What she found was the reverse.  Many children spoke of how their parents are addicted to their smart phone.  They spoke of the desire for their parents to put down their phones and interact and pay more attention to them.  In these cases, new technology which is intended to be a tool for staying connected actually leads itself to be a tool for alienation from the family.

On the other hand, an argument can be made that technology can be used to keep the family connected.  This can be particularly helpful to busy families trying to keep tabs on each other.  It gives parents a sense of security knowing they can reach and be reached by their children in case an emergency arises.  It is also helpful when families are separated by distance or divorce.  New technology can bridge distances and keep families connected with extended family with easy instant messages, and instant shared photos.  A 2008 study published in the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project showed that cell phones, email and text messages helped families compensate for the increased stress of modern life by allowing them to communicate with family members while they were apart.  New technology can also be used to enhance communication by making it the focus of family activities:  Family movie night or games on electronic consoles can bring everyone together and create a common topic for discussion.  And if your child spends every waking moment on her cell phone, send her a text message. "ILU" (I love you) is almost as good as a hug.

So what is the answer for your family?  Listed below are suggestions from researchers to help balance the benefits and difficulties associated with technology in the family.

  • Take time to unplug.  Create time with the family that intentionally leaves electronics behind.  Go for a walk, play board games, play a game of catch or basketball together. Spending time with family members helps kids develop a stronger sense of self and develops stronger family ties.
  • Create no-phone zones.  Create a time – maybe Sunday afternoons or evenings – when no one in the family is on the computer or cell phone.  Parents need to model this by turning off the computer and cell phones.
  • Restricted Areas.  Set limits on specific areas, like the dinner table, where digital devices are not permitted. 
  • No Disconnect Notice.  Establish etiquette and guidelines that face to face communication should never be interrupted by a cell phone, email or television show.

Setting technology limits is a personal decision based on the values that you have, so there is not one policy that will fit every family.  As a parent and educator who encourages the use of technology in a positive and creative way, but is also aware of some of the downsides to certain technologies, I encourage you to think about your family life, and ask yourself if technology is bringing you closer or farther from the people you care about?

News Release provided by Kathy Green.