Families are plugged in — and tuned out — thanks to technology

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

What was the most technologically advanced device in your home growing up? Was it a television? Or maybe an Atari gaming system? And what about your phone? If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, as many of today’s parents did, your phone was considered advanced if it had call waiting.

Wow. What a difference a few decades can make.

Today, many American children know how to navigate a tablet by the age of 2. And it is not uncommon to see a young child sitting in a grocery cart, watching movies or playing games on small devices, while Mom browses the aisles. Trips in the car are often filled with entertainment from start to finish, as tablets now travel with us to Grandma’s house. Afternoons after school are spent communicating with peers online, texting, or in gaming chat rooms on the Xbox or PlayStation.

For parents, technology has now made it possible for us to watch over our precious bundles with video baby monitors in the first few years, and with location-tracking apps on smartphones later. No more fretting alone in the middle of the night while baby is sick. We can seek parenting advice from others who have been through it all with a simple Google search.

The non-stop, all-access availability of information that technology provides us has been a game-changer. But is it doing us any favors? Has it made our lives, and the parenting experience, markedly better? Not necessarily, according to experts. In fact, in contrasting parenting today with parenting 20 years ago, many felt today’s access to technology has ushered in a new age of high-tech parenting challenges that has been, overall, quite damaging for families.

“Parents can connect with other parents and access support via technology,” said Dr. Kate Roberts, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist with offices in Salem and Hamilton. “Parents can use it to work from home and, therefore, be more available to kids as parents when they don’t have a commute.”

But Roberts said the benefits of non-stop access to information also brings an emotional toll.

“Parents can be distracted by what is going on elsewhere, as opposed to focusing on their children,” she said. “‘The grass is greener’ definitely applies to social media. To the socially conscious parent, this can have implications for their self-esteem, as well as for their children, if they compare their children to others they see online.”

In other words, while you’re commiserating with fellow parents and getting good advice about bringing up kids, you’re also exposing yourself to a barrage of information to which you would not have had access 20 years ago. While some of it is useful, there is also plenty that is not — and that can lead to feelings of inadequacy. 

Twenty-four/seven access to news and information in the media has also given us a false sense of the perils children face each day in the world, said Jeanine Fitzgerald, a certified human behavior consultant and specialist, and owner of The Fitzgerald Institute of Lifelong Learning, based in Hubbardston.

“Media violence makes children believe the world is more dangerous than it is, with 90% of the top-grossing PG-13 films containing violence,” she noted. “We live in homes with an average of four televisions, three DVDs, one DVR, two CD players, two stereos, two video consoles, and two computers. Children haven’t changed — childhood has — and one of the changes is the effect of technology.” 

Fitzgerald thinks the constant availability of technology has been a blessing and a curse as families turn to devices too often in their daily lives, minimizing the kinds of connections and conversation experienced decades ago.

“The technology itself is not the concern as much as its misuse, and its misuse is evident in our parenting,” she said. “From smartphones to tablets, computers to televisions, we have never had so many options on ways to spend our time. Juggling our school, work, home, and community responsibilities, we rely on technology to keep up with the pace. The entertainment technologies have advanced rapidly and, according to a Kaiser Foundation Study, elementary children spent 7.5 hours a day being entertained by screens. Children and teens spend more time engaged with media or technology than any other activity except sleep.”

John Sargent, chief of child psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center and a professor at Tufts Medical School, thinks the challenges technology presents today are the same issues wrapped up in a new kind of paper. Still, it offers new dilemmas for parents.

“There is an idea that kids have a new culture around Instagram or the other social media sites,” Sargent said. “But I don’t think it’s that different from kids listening to rock music back in the ’50s and ’60s. It is just more ever-present and harder to shut off and disregard. Parents have always set limits and said, ‘The phone goes off at 9’ or ‘Be home by 10.’ Now they have to say that about more things. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that children have no more than 2 hours of screen time a day. That includes smartphones, computers, TV — all screen media. I think if you ask any family, they would find that to be challenging.”

It’s setting limits on technology use that seems to be the toughest nut to crack today, according to Fitzgerald, as device use is as common among parents as it is for their children. While it may have been easy to ask the kids to get off a gaming console 20 years ago, these days, parents are as hooked on their iPad or smartphone.

“While we may have anxiety about what our children see, hear, or can access on screens, we must stop and ask ourselves: ‘What am I modeling?’” she said. “Two-thirds of children and teens in the country report that their parents have no rules about media and technology use. How can they, when they may not place any restraints on their own use?”

And leading by example, while hard, is really the only way a parent can instill an old-fashioned sense of enjoying time off the grid, Roberts said.

“Increased virtual experiences translates to decreased real-life experiences,” she noted. “Parents get complacent and don’t want to fight against the current. Parents need to limit screen time to be able to teach, model, and be present for their children, families, and for themselves.”