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How technology can erode a family's foundation

So many parents today are drenched in media, and children find it hypocritical for parents to limit their kids' screen time. Yet the author of a new book provides confident statements saying parents can be successful raising digital natives.
So many parents today are drenched in media, and children find it hypocritical for parents to limit their kids' screen time. Yet the author of a new book provides confident statements saying parents can be successful raising digital natives.

From shortened attention spans to eroding social skills, raising children amidst a sea of ubiquitous iPads and smartphones can invoke all sorts of unintended consequences and potential pitfalls.

Yet clinical psychiatrist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair thinks parents can still cultivate well-balanced kids in the Digital Age. In her new book “The Big Disconnect,” Steiner-Adair analyzes how tried-and-true techniques for effective child rearing can be adapted to the Digital Age.

“I wanted parents to think about how we sustain healthy family relationships through this new time,” said Steiner-Adair, who also teaches in Harvard’s psychiatry program. “So it became a very in-depth, comprehensive book.”

“The Big Disconnect” was published Tuesday and already has generated substantial coverage. A Wednesday book review by the Associated Press noted, “In her extensive research, (Steiner-Adair) cites hundreds of sources and interviews more than 1,000 children (ages 4 to 18) and hundreds of parents and teachers from diverse backgrounds. It’s a lot of information to download, but the author presents it in an organized way. ... The book isn’t a condemnation of technology, and actually points outs some of its virtues.”

At the same time, “The Big Disconnect” is relevant enough right now that it's drawn the attention even of smaller publications like the Lethbridge Herald in Alberta, Canada. A staff editorial in Thursday's Herald soberly remarked, “(Steiner-Adair) says too often children opt for electronic devices over reading, low-tech play that requires imagination or people connection. If kids grow up with poorer reading skills, less imagination and a decreased ability to relate to people, is that a worthwhile trade-off for their prowess with technology?”

Instilling family values has long been an integral aspect of effective parenting. But because technology can instantaneously connect children with virtually any influence imaginable, Steiner-Adair believes it’s more critical than ever to imbue kids with family values at an early age.

“It’s always been important for parents to be clear with their children about what their family values are and things that matter to them because of what they might see in the media or be exposed to in other people’s houses,” she told the Deseret News. “But never before have children been able to go into dominant culture —YouTube, Facebook, chat rooms — and connect with people or view videos that are representative of some of the most anti-social (behaviors).

“Especially for teenagers, the values of online culture are the opposite of all the things that you value in your family. So it’s important early on that parents think really clearly about each degree of exposure to online access they give their child.”

In “The Big Disconnect,” Steiner-Adair divvied up family members into age-based groups for purposes of examining the unique challenges each group faces upon adopting new tablet and smartphone technologies. The first five classifications are rather straightforward — babies; ages 3-5, 6-10 and 11-13; and teenagers. But the sixth grouping — the parents themselves — illustrated the broad, holistic focus of Steiner-Adair’s work.

“I interviewed little people, 2, 3, 4 (years old) and they would say, ‘Mommy, get off your stupid cell phone,’” she said in a recent radio interview with NPR host Diane Rehm. “Or when they would ask their parent at eight to take them to school and they'd interrupt their mom or their dad and say, ‘We have to go to school.’ … And then they describe giving up, feeling sad, feeling bad because their parents, like all of us when we're hitting our to-do list on screen, the part of our brain that wants to accomplish something gets kind of cranky when we're interrupted.”

In an interview with Time, Steiner-Adair said in her research kids call their parents "hypocrites" for using screens so often while restricting their children's use.

Northwestern University researcher Vicky Rideout reported in June that the vast majority of American adults are logging nearly five hours per day or more — even much, much more.

Rideout found that children mirror their parents. She split 2,300 parents with young children into three groups — media-centric, media-moderate and media-light. She could have labeled the first category "media-drenched," because this group, representing about 40 percent of the parents, averaged 11 hours a day of screen time between computers, phones, tablets, games and movies. Their children averaged nearly five hours of screen time daily.

The moderate parents, 45 percent, averaged nearly five hours per day while their children averaged nearly three. The last 16 percent of parents averaged less than two hours of screen time a day; their children averaged nearly the same amount.

Steiner-Adair said the catalyst for writing “The Big Disconnect” came from her work traveling the country as a school consultant, something she’s done for the past 25 years.

“I look at cultural values and norms that undermine children’s healthy development and I look at how to strengthen parent-child relationships,” she said. “I look at curriculum and how schools design programs to give to give children the social and emotional tools as well as the academic tools to stay healthy in today’s world.”