The Digitized Family

A look at the dangers of too much screen time and how Cy-Fair families can find the right balance for connecting and socializing with family

Written by Cy-Fair Magazine’s Editors

Go to any restaurant and you’ll see it: an entire family, silent, all looking down at their devices instead of talking with each other. Some “hip” new restaurants are even offering media-inspired entertainment at the table to keep everyone occupied throughout the meal. As we spend more and more time checking Facebook, Instagram, and playing Candy Crush Saga, we are spending less and less time connecting as a family.

With the ease of access to the Internet and the constant feeling of being in-touch with friends through social media, many Cy-Fairians, from kids to adults, admit to being tempted to be “on” digitally all hours of the day. Teens aren’t the only ones glued to their smartphones. Parents are also facing attention-span issues between their tablets with games, movies, work emails, app notifications, and the cries of young children that are pacified by handing over the device. But experts say this attempt to socially multitask is actually leaving negative imprints on families as they struggle to find ways to connect.

Escaping Real Life
“I think that families are learning to escape from the stress of life behind their iPhones and tablets. We are learning that instead of looking at a sunset, it is more enjoyable to scroll through our Facebook feed,” observes certified counselor Susan Sowell, MA, LPC-S. “We have exchanged the blessing of connecting with our loved ones with disconnecting in front of a screen. It is an easy trap to get into and robs the family of having true community.”

Lack of Engagement
The first step is to recognize the problem and admit if youor others in the family are getting a little obsessed with your digital devices to the detriment of real-life human interaction. “Technology’s purpose is to make our lives easier; however, long-term we see that it often has opposite effects,” observes Amy Rollo, M.A., LSSP, LPC, clinical director for The Center for Children and Families. “While tablets and smartphones lead to short-term gains, I often witness the long-term ramifications, such as not being able to attend a meal without the aid of a tablet, struggles focusing in the morning, or prioritizing homework. Overall technology can be great, but it is important to think longterm and with everything, use moderation.”

Dinner with the family used to be a time for bonding, connecting, and discussing everyone’s highs and lows, but today everyone seems to be on their own screen. We’ve all been in a conversation with a friend, when they look down and check their phone. You suddenly sense how unimportant your conversation must be. Imagine how a child feels when mom is listening with one ear, but looking down at the cell phone instead of looking in to his or her eyes. Who knows what the long-term detrimental impact on today’s children will be?

“What we are creating is a generation that is far more comfortable talking via text than in person. What is being lost is the art of personal relationships,” adds Karen Jaggers, MS, NCC, LPC.

Setting Digital Boundaries
“We implemented a ‘no-electronics rule’ during family meals so we can focus solely on each other,” says Tony Rivera, a local father of two. The Riveras recently returned from a long road trip where they actually turned off the DVD player and played license plate bingo together. Other Cy-Fair parents never allow kids to have phones or tablets during meals, homework, or at bedtime. Collecting kids’ and teens’ cell phones at the end of the day is a standard in many Cy-Fair homes.

Forming New Habits
“If we want our children to form new habits, then we need to take the lead,” adds Sowell. “We need to be willing to put our phones down when we are spending time with them.”
She suggests waiting to respond to text messages, emails, and even phone calls when you are engaged with your children. “As parents, we need to lead by example and that means limiting our screen time as well,” she says.

Having designated times that everyone is unplugged is a great start to setting up boundaries. “Set small goals at first,” suggests Rollo. “For instance, an hour a day of non-digital
time where everyone is available to interact is a great start.” Families may even want to challenge themselves to a “media fast,” where they take a break from their normal digital routine to help them form new, healthy habits.

The Deeper Issue
As a family, you may need to evaluate why you are spending excessive amounts of time on and behind the screen. For example, is it simply a bad habit or could you be escaping from stressful situations or issues within the family that need to be addressed?

“Evaluating why we do what we do is a great place to start,” says Sowell. “The next step is to make a decision to make a change. Discuss this as a family and brainstorm together.”

You may find that your children would rather spend time with you participating in a fun family activity, or you may realize that you need to invest more in your child so that they will be more excited about wanting to spend time together as a family.

Technology’s Rightful Place
Limit Internet use at home, and insist on family time. Area mom India Smith says her children have responded well to a point system where they earn screen time by reading.
“The length of reading determines how much video game time that [my son] is allotted,” says Smith. “For instance, 30 minutes of reading equals 15 minutes of technology, one hour equals 30 minutes, and so on.” Smith also finds that scheduling screen time for the latter part of the day keeps the family more in tune with each other and ensures more face-to-face time earlier in the day.

“Children of all ages learn by watching what their parents do with their time. Model to them that you are not ‘glued’ to your devices,” Sowell suggests.

“Create a fun plan for a week,” says Rollo. “Have a game night, go to the park, or do family walks. You might be surprised how little you miss the screen time.”

Technology is a wonderful tool, but as with anything, it should be used in moderation and not as a replacement for one-on-one socializing. Sit down as a family and discuss your rules for digital devices, how you will use them, and what the limitations are. As parents, be sure you are following the rules as well, setting a strong example for your children to follow. You will all be thankful for the memories and conversations you will create together. Jaggers adds, “In the end, no one will look back on their life and say, ‘I wish I had spent more time online.’” CFM

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