Written and provided by our Family Advocate Jenna Harvey-Reed
One of my greatest memories as a parent is of a night when the power went out during a hurricane. Our then 7 and 8 year old daughters were frightened by the storm, and couldn’t bring themselves to sleep in the pitch black darkness as the winds raged on. We ended up playing gin rummy around a flashlight until they were so tired they asked to go to bed. The power didn’t come back on for a week- leaving us sweaty and bored, but together, safe, and with all of our worldly possessions intact as others nearby weren’t so lucky.
It was certainly a challenging week without air conditioning, fans, or a working kitchen, but we all seem to look back fondly on it. I think this is because there was no TV, Xbox, or DS’s to tune into, and mom and dad had to preserve phone batteries for days at a time. It really wasn’t much different than how my husband and I grew up in the 80s and 90s, but somehow it felt surreal.
We went out to visit friends and family or just sit in a breeze, got creative at the grocery store and with takeout options, played cards and board games, read books and worked our way through craft kits that had been collecting dust for 6 months since Christmas. We were engaged with each other, but also free to sit quietly with our own thoughts. Still, it wasn’t long after the power was restored that we went right back to our tech-dependent ways.
More and more often, as the kids get older and technology advances, I look around my living room to see every person absorbed into some screen- and not even looking very amused or intrigued (myself and my husband included). This is a norm in 2016. We live in a world full of distractions. Tech toys are the norm. A survey by Common Sense Media of more than 2,600 eight to eighteen year-olds found that tweens reported more than five hours a day using media, while teenagers reported nearly nine. These figures did not include school-related internet usage. This number may seem unreasonably high, considering that children are in school for 6 hours a day, and are hopefully sleeping more than that. I believe it though, because even in our home with a “no touch-screens under 13” rule, the kids still get hours in each day. In recent years, I’ve noted that bus rides to field trips are less likely to involve kids singing “99 bottles of ‘milk’ on the wall” and more likely to be eerily quiet as most riders are using ear buds. When we host sleepovers, our daughters’ guests almost always come with smart phone in hand, and the most interactive thing they come up with to do together is to take “us-ies” or create makeup tutorial videos I won’t allow them to post. Aside from the content kids may be viewing or even creating, which may very well be positive, I worry that so much use of technology is keeping families and friends from really connecting with one another.
So what is a parent to do? I’ve joked with my husband that some major failure of the grid would be welcome, but until WW3 takes away our tech, we can make changes in our day to day to be present in this very connected world.
1) Set an example.
It’s easy for me to begrudge my children their electronics and place limits on their usage, but in all reality, I’ve got my own tech-dependency issues to work through. Modeling an appreciation for IRL (that’s “in real life”) hobbies and interests is an important first step in showing kids that efforts away from screens are worthwhile. Like anything else in parenting, “do as I do” seems more effective than “do as I say”. There are bonus points here for inviting your kids to engage along-side you. If they aren’t into your kind of hobby, offer to explore one of their interests.
2) Have tech-free times regularly
Technology has been purposely advanced to a point where we gravitate toward it out of habit (reading the same Facebook feed twice, anyone?). The great thing about habits is that they can be broken and built with a little effort. Think of when and why you’d like your kids to be off of their devices. As an example, artificial light from screens like tablets, TVs, and smartphones are thought to actually off-set our natural sleep-wake cycle. For this reason, it’s been recommended that screen use end about 2 hours before one’s target bedtime. (Side note: When science supports your parenting decisions, it’s a nice way to let your kids resent someone else for a while.) Think of other times you feel that media use is getting in the way of priorities- this could be during family meals, on short car rides, or while there are personal responsibilities and/or chores to be completed.
3) Encourage non-entertainment use
If my kids had their way, they’d get a solid 8 hours of fail compilations and the vlogs of twenty-somethings who are apparently unemployed, but inclined to share the most trivial details of their lives (“Ugh, I hate the dentist… comment below if you hate the dentist too, and don’t forget to subscribe!”). I worry about the loss of mental function due to these things, or at the least an over-appreciation for the mundane. The internet is full of opportunities for kids to explore their curiosity, or to connect with organizations that are in line with their interests. You may consider giving kids some time to research a topic of interest to “teach” to the family, or to study a new skill to show off in a family talent showcase.
4) Plug in together
Media definitely has its place, and is the most available form of entertainment around. Rather than scrolling news feeds while the kids watch TV, consider tuning into the same screen for a while. Video games, movies, shared Pinterest boards, and even YouTube videos can give families the down-time they need with the added bonus of having something to talk about together later on. Revisit your own favorite childhood movies with your kids, and marvel at the bad computer graphics and unrealistic animatronics that used to take your breath away.