Most children can't comprehend a world without the Internet and technology, so it's up to parents to teach them how to use screen time wisely, even if it means stashing their own smartphones to do it.
A new book, "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age," by Catherine Steiner-Adair with Teresa H. Barker, warns that our rampant use of technology is jeopardizing family connections vital to every child's well-being.
Steiner-Adair is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School and has a practice working with children and families. In her extensive research, she 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, separating chapters by children's ages and including scores of real anecdotes to illustrate her points. The candid responses from children — particularly teens — about their feelings when faced with technology dilemmas are eye-opening.
Steiner-Adair offers startling statistics on how much kids are using technology and calls the fast takeover of tech a "revolution" that's subverted family life. The book isn't a condemnation of technology, and actually points outs some of its virtues. Steiner-Adair suggests video games can connect kids with peers and promote strategic thinking, video chats with relatives far away can reinforce family ties and online friends can provide a healthy sense of belonging.
But too often children are choosing technology over imaginative play, reading and establishing real relationships through conversation and screen-free time. Many parents feel out of control when it comes to setting limits for tech use — especially when kids say they need it for homework. Steiner-Adair warns that parents who choose not to pay attention are doing a disservice to their children. She provides discussion points that require kids to commit to transparency and respect for the privilege of computer use.
The book's tone isn't preachy or judgmental, but compassionate, suggesting we're all in this together, so let's talk and find solutions. It's a slow read and requires patience to digest the research, but the author shares fascinating true stories from kids, parents and educators she's helped through many technology-related crises.
Kids need time and attention to thrive, but too often a connection is lost because parents are "lured away by the siren call of the virtual world," the author says. Children as young as toddlers see screens as rivals, but also learn to covet them like their parents. Steiner-Adair recommends parents set a good example by shutting down the iPad and TV at designated times, to demonstrate a family commitment to human communication.
The information on how overexposure to technology can affect a child's brain and social skill development is alarming. But the last chapter of the book — which should be required reading for all parents — advocates moderation and includes many specific suggestions for ways to bond as a family without technology.
The "Big Disconnect" offers terrific parenting advice that transcends technology, tackling issues like self-identity, navigating friendships and sex. Its message is not exclusive to kids, but aimed at every family member: stay connected to people and nature as often as possible. As Steiner-Adair says, "Instead of plugging into ear buds, listen to yourself, find your inner GPS, Google search your own life experience, plug into your soul."
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