time. Thereís a Norman Rockwell painting for that. A scene in which
family members gather around the table, eagerly sharing the adventures
of their day, with smiles as wide as their faces. Today it seems more
likely that parents and children are tuned into their own world, their
faces illuminated not by the stories of their relatives, but the
e-book, smartphone or tablet in hand.
When it comes to
balancing family and technology, modern parents face an unsettling
reality: expanding communication technologies now connect us more than
ever, but their pervasive and relentless pursuit of our attention span
has abstracted the relationships with the people right in front of us
ó including with our children.
children are forgoing fort-building with bed sheets in favor of the
virtual construction methods festooned in Minecraft.
We live in a
world where "freedom from want" has turned into aimlessly
scrolling Facebook and Twitter for amusement and owning more devices
than we could ever need. Combined with Americansí penchant for work
and "busyness," and itís easy to see why some parents are
feeling overwhelmed ó and pulling the plug.
According to the
American Academy of Pediatrics, children spend an average of seven
hours a day on entertainment media. For adults, that number can tally
up to many more. Though families are spending time together in the
same room, questions remain as to the amount of quality family time
really be behind a seismic rift in families?
The media seems
to think so, and so do many parents. Reports about "distracted
parenting flubs" flood the news, not to mention the countless
blog posts swirling the Web detailing parentsí accounts of battles
waged with children over "screen time," the collective name
defining electronic media use.
The high rate of
technology consumption has even ignited an unofficial holiday to
encourage families to detox from the digital overload ó for 24
hours, at least.
In reality, no
one really knows the full implications of technology use in the home
ó socially or otherwise, says Noelle Chesley, an associate professor
of sociology at UW-Milwaukee.
Fitzgerald writes a parenting blog called Wisconsin Mommy.
While the jury
is still out on the effects of work spilling into the home, Chesley
says there isnít any solid evidence showing new technologies
disrupting parent-child relationships beyond what has already taken
place since the introduction of television.
difference, as far as Chesley can tell, is that the introduction and
adoption of digital devices has been "hyper-amplified."
To make matters
more confounding, the available scientific research exploring the link
between technology and family life offers little more than a
speculative, if not complex, world view.
important to try to be a little bit nuanced, and weigh the positive
and negative viewpoints ó they kind of cancel each other
out," Chesley explains. "Overall, key family relationships
are not changing things in the direction of disconnection."
In some cases,
the research implies that technology, particularly smartphones, has
actually strengthened family ties, she adds, though tensions may arise
over the use of the Internet.
limited evidence that for teens, technology may be displacing quality
time with their parents," says Chesley. "It can be a source
of conflict within families."
There is no
shortage of pressure to give in to the advent of gadgetry. Every
season a new version of a tablet, handheld video player or smartphone
is released to the masses. Even toy manufacturers are getting in on
the action, making room for smartphones on the bellies of teddy bears
and on the tops of walkers, though they do so under the guise of
providing "educational" tools to parents.
parents agree they occasionally use phones to pacify children (such as
in a doctorís office, or in line at the grocery store), this last
fact doesnít sit well with some parents.
kind of disturbing that toy companies are encouraging parents to put
their kids in front of a (smartphone)," says Maureen Fitzgerald,
a mother of a 9-year-old son, and the voice behind the parenting blog,
Wisconsin Mommy. She says she recently viewed an ad for a smartphone
insert over a diaper changing able. "Itís like, ĎI canít
give my kid these three minutes?í This is a time when parents should
be bonding with children."
her best to limit her sonís video game fixation. There is no
computer on weekdays, for example, and he is highly involved in
sports. But it isnít always easy for the family to distinguish
between "screen time" for work or play.
Even on days
when the computer is supposed to be "banned," Fitzgerald
says she is forced to give in so that her son can finish his homework,
which must be completed online. The lines often get blurred, she says.
time limits and monitor everything very closely," says
Fitzgerald. "But, what if we hand the kid an e-book? Does that
count as screen time? Technology isnít going away, so in the end,
you just hope he has the life skills and self-control."
In 2011, the
surge in "screen time" in American households prompted the
American Academy of Pediatrics to update its previous recommendation
in 1999 that all but banned television in children under the age of 2,
and reiterated the importance of quality family time and constructive
play in the cognitive and social development in young children and
The group also
stressed the need for more scientific research ó an indication that
so much about tech is yet unknown. The lack of research doesnít
comfort parents like Mary Boyle, a mother and home-schooler of two who
lives in Port Washington.
uncomfortable that our kids and this generation are being used as
guinea pigs," Boyle says. The family owns a single television and
her children ó ages 8 and 11 ó donít have any video games, iPads
or cell phones.
Some people may
view her restrictions as extreme, but Boyle insists her children arenít
itís inevitable; that I have to get my kids a phone, but I donít
think they are missing out on anything," Boyle says. "I want
them to have the childhood I had. Itís really scary that kids donít
know how to play anymore. I want my kids to be social and to have an
Boyle has a
right to be concerned. While the AAP clarified that it only
"discourages" families from excessive media use in youth and
children, it also warned of its potential side effects: obesity,
aggressive behavior, attention issues in preschool and school-aged
children and various sleep problems.
Hospital of Wisconsin, the hospitalís sleep center has seen an
increase in children with "sleep disturbance," cases rather
than disorders such as sleep apnea, something pediatric sleep
specialist Dr. Louella Amos attributes in part to the increase of
media in the home.
media and electronic devices have just exploded, and it has become
really problematic," especially in teenagers who bring devices
with them to bed, Amos says. "Even if itís just a page of
links, they click on one link, then go to another. Itís kind of a
domino effect once that interest level is aroused."
Blame it on
biology. Amos says light emitting from electronic media devices
disrupts the brainís signals to release melatonin ó our bodyís
sleep hormone ó off-setting a personís wake-sleep cycle.
may prevent children from entering the REM cycle, otherwise known as
deep sleep, which is responsible for everything from somatic growth,
to memory consolidation and mood, to cognitive development.
parents to limit screen time to directly after school, and to shut off
all devices at least one hour before bedtime. The key to balancing
technology, she says, may lie in parentsí ability to utter a simple
is part of our culture now," Amos says. "But, we have to
know when to turn it off." m