Tough Questions about Families and Technology

Jessamine Chan -- October 4th, 2013

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In the past week, I’ve told every friend I’ve seen about this book. Some have toddlers and found the scary anecdotes to be too much. A friend who is 6 months pregnant was intrigued. While reading about how texting has replaced normal conversation or even email for today’s kids, I felt so guilty that I phoned my parents and best friend 90’s style and left voicemails and played phone tag. Remember phone tag? (My mom pointed out that she only texts with her daughters because we never pick up the phone.) One friend whose children are grown worries that maybe it’s too late—maybe technology is so much a part of children’s lives, the damage can’t be undone.

But it’s not too late, and you, blog readers who are parents or soon-to-be parents, should all read this book. The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (Harper, Aug.) by clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, writing with Teresa H. Barker, charts the negative impact of the digital revolution on parents and children. Though Steiner-Adair goes to some length to include positive stories about technology for balance, as our starred review notes, “she sounds the alarm consistently.” Sometimes the problem comes from the parents. In one particularly distressing passage, a seven-year-old girl tells Steiner-Adair during therapy: “‘When my dad is on the phone I have this conversation in my head: ‘Hello! Remember me? Remember who I am? I am your daughter! You had me cuz you wanted me. Only it doesn’t feel like that right now. Right now it feels like all—you—care—about—is your phone!’” Sometimes the problem is the kids. As Steiner-Adair noted in her Q&A with PW: “Psychologically, children are losing the ability to reflect…kids get addicted to stimulation from screens. Some can’t then tolerate the slow pace of reading books.”

For new parents, she advocates saying no to any screens for the child’s first two years. Steiner-Adair highlights what parents can do early on in terms of modeling a healthy relationship with technology and continues this discussion through the issues facing tech-savvy adolescents and teenagers. She even provides sample scripts for parents to use when discussing sexting, hooking up, or online pornography with their teens, so that parents won’t behave in ways that are “scary, crazy, and clueless.” I am not Steiner-Adair’s target audience, since I don’t have children, nor do I have a wireless Internet connection at home. Despite reading from a outsider’s perspective, I was impressed with Steiner-Adair’s compassionate, encouraging tone, and the depth of her research, beyond citing the latest findings and conversations with her colleagues: visits to 30 schools; focus groups with a total of 1,000 children around the country, ages 4-18; interviews with more than 500 parents and more than 500 teachers, from a range of backgrounds. Yes, her book will give you pause, but pausing is part of the point.

2 thoughts on “Tough Questions about Families and Technology

  1. Christine

    I am struggling with whether to get my almost 11-year-old daughter an electronic device of her own. We have computers and an iPad but she says she feels so left out compared to her friends who “all” have them. I have begun reading this book and agree it raises many crucial issues for parents. The problem is it is HARD work to monitor kids’ usage and have the right conversations about communicating digitally. I am willing to do the work but know many parents are not. I continue to be stunned when I see parents handing infants and toddlers their iPhones so the kids won’t squirm….

  2. Amy Smith

    Technology is definitely a big issue among my family, but we’re doing our best to remedy that situation. We’re starting to have family days where no one is allowed to use phones, and that has helped substantially. It’s just so hard in today’s world!

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