Taming The Technology Beast


I know it was a joke. Someone posted one of those Christmas photos showing a dad and three kids all in the same matching jean colored shirts and pants. But in this photo no one is looking at the camera because they are all looking down at some electronic device.

I chuckle for a second until I remember that it's too true to be that funny. There is just something about embracing our weaknesses that bums me out.

But then I remember the good news...

This kind of dark comedy can serve a purpose. Maybe parents can take away a lesson from this dysfunctional family snapshot. Maybe we can have an important conversation after the laughter dies out. Maybe I'll start it.

E-mail, facebook, texting, chatting, phone calls, video and computer games, instant google searches, 24/7 news updates and a zillion tv shows. I live with this technology. My husband lives with this technology. My kids breathe this technology. But at those moments when I look away from the light and see that we are more connected to the screens in front of us than the people around us it makes me sad.

Sure some families can handle these electronic distractions and not get too sucked in. Really busy farmers come to mind. Maybe Olympic-bound athletes or families living on a deserted island with limited electricity and no wifi. But in many, many homes management of our new technology age is a constant battle.

So I am skipping past the “Should I worry" stage to “How much should I worry?" Right now I am somewhere closer to alarm.

We know that new technologies are affecting how children's brains are being wired. Their face-to-face social skills, physical skills, and finding-alternative-things-to-do skills are being short-circuited. Their development of sustained attention and traits like empathy, compassion and gratitude are being malnourished. At the extreme, there are children (and adults) who are truly becoming addicted to some of these offerings - whether video games or checking in on-line - creating a very controlling presence in their lives.

Plus, it is happening so fast and so massively that it is a challenge to even notice just how much we are being reshaped. Technology has taken over our 'dying of boredom' angst. Which does not bode well for the benefits of reading great books, drawing cool pictures, figuring out how car engines work or getting the neighborhood to play kick-the-can.

So the next question becomes, “What to do about it?"

Here's what we do. First, we limit the kinds of electronics we have in the house. They must challenge the brain or the body and have some connection value. No XBox, No Playstation 3. We have a Wii and a 4-person Quiz Game. We had Rock Band and Dance, Dance Revolution.

But computers offer all kinds of junk food that my kids are constantly sneaking so we started having 'No Screen Sundays' about 5 years ago. And while we do forget or make exceptions for work or school or when it gets dark earlier we at least try to visit life before the magic boxes showed up. It's kind of like going to one of those Colonial villages - where really they used to churn their own butter!

Last spring we participated in the Screen-Free Week sponsored by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. It was challenging and I didn't enforce it strongly but we were all at least more conscious that week.

I am mildly happy with these measures though I realize they are tame compared to people with no TVs in their homes or the Amish. And while I admire these courageous souls, I think there are downsides to being Amish or not being on facebook and enough upsides to this technology that I am not willing to go off the grid. Like connecting with others who are interested in gratitude. Or watching those cute videos that make me laugh. Or reading this awesome article right now!

So my conclusion is that eyes-open media consumption and screen time is a reasonable target. For kids, it is their reality and we need to help them become wise to the dangers of this time-sucking endeavor while acknowledging the advantages and teaching them how to manage it. Josh Shipp has a great article with some ideas for teens.

It helps when the village is paying attention so let's keep talking to each other and our kids. And how about limiting game time during playdates, encouraging alternatives for all of our children's sakes, and of course modeling restraint.

I'll start. I am going to get my kids off their screens right now and have a real conversation. You know they're going to love that! Wish me luck.

Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Parenting Consultant, Workshop Presenter and Author based in Ann Arbor, Mi. Contact her at annie@practicehow.com