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Gadgets gone wild
Is technology taking its toll on family face time?


May 2014

Family 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.

These same 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 being fostered.

Can technology 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.

Maureen 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.

The only 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.

"Itís 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.

"There is 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.

While most 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.

"Itís 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."

Fitzgerald does 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.

"We set 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 adolescents.

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.

"Iím very 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 culturally isolated.

"People say 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 imagination."

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.

At Childrenís 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.

"Social 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.

The disruption 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.

Amos encourages 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 word: Ďno.í

"Technology is part of our culture now," Amos says. "But, we have to know when to turn it off." m



This story ran in the May 2014 issue of: