I’m not sure how it began. I think it all started with the chaos of moving to a new home in a new city in the middle of a school year. However it commenced, it was clear: my children’s use of electronic devices had gotten out of control.
“Mom, can I play on my i-Pad while you unpack?”
“Mommy, I finished all of my school work; can I play X-box for a little while?”
For two months, I acquiesced because it allowed me to unpack one more box, organize one more closet, and buy one more minute of peace. Before I knew it, my children, particularly my son, were begging for electronic devices on car rides, at dinner, and even attempting to slide them under pillows in case they awoke in the middle of the night. Clearly, we had a problem. Their dependence on smart devices for constant entertainment had even taken a toll on their personalities. My son was moody and jittery when the iPad wasn’t in his hands. Fights ensued over whose turn it was to play X-box. They were rushing through assignments simply to get to tech time. When I finally decided enough was enough and attempted to set limits, I was met with mourning and gnashing of teeth, so I found myself continually giving in because that was easier than the hassle of dealing with the outburst over just saying, “No!”
That is until late December when I came across the following while reading The Collapse of Parenting: “Too often parents today allow their desire to please their child to govern their parenting. If your relationship with your child is governed by your own desire to be loved by him or her, the odds are good that you will not achieve that objective….The parent who puts the child’s wishes first may earn only the child’s contempt, not their love.” A few chapters later I came across this: “Part of your job as a parent is to educate desire. To teach your child to go beyond ‘whatever floats your boat.’ To enjoy, and to want to enjoy, pleasures higher and deeper than video games and social media can provide.” It was the wake-up call I needed, so bolstered by the book’s promise that “after six weeks of the consistent enforcement of the rules, your child will be more pleasant, and more respectful of you and other adults,” my husband and I decided to take drastic action.
As part of a family meeting on setting New Year’s resolutions, my husband and I informed our children that, as their parents who had been entrusted by God with the responsibility to rear them in a way that instilled good character and self-control, we had made the decision to ban all electronic use from Monday through Friday. Rather, they would be expected to use any non-school time to read, work on a hobby, develop a hobby, play, or complete chores. Period. No exceptions. Surprisingly, we were met with minimal resistance. It was as if the kids had been looking for us to step up and reclaim our parental authority by setting the limits and boundaries they truly craved. And even more surprisingly, the constant begging for tech time ceased. There were days when they tested the limits, but when I reinforced that we only use electronics on the weekends, they found something else to do.
Rather than run to the X-box when they finished assignments, my son rediscovered construction toys like Legos. My daughter reignited a love of reading and even took an interest in cooking. Cries of “I’m bored” suddenly became replaced with creative endeavors unguided by mom. My children’s relationship also began to improve, and as their fights lessened, they even discovered they could actually enjoy playing together. We subscribed to Tinker Crate and pulled out our board games. Within a few weeks, this became our routine, and harmony was restored to our home, simply from banning electronic use. To say I was shocked at the influence electronics had on our family well-being would be an understatement. My kids were behaving the way kids were intended, not like mindless drones attached to technological devices.
For months, I had fretted over the effects constant electronic use was having on my kids, and it turns out simply setting serious limits on their access created the catalyst needed to improve their mood, relationships, and creativity. Sure, it made my life a little more complicated. Rather than sending them to play X-box when I needed to get some work accomplished, I found myself sitting down to a game of UNO. I had to put a phone call on hold every now and then to indulge in a promised read-aloud, but I also began to see that I had to teach by example and examine how often my own time was spent mindlessly on Facebook or Pinterest. As Sax points out in The Collapse of Parenting the one inescapable truth of parenting is that we must “teach by example” and “to become a better parent, I must become a better person.” I soon found that this experiment in unplugging wasn’t just for my children’s benefit.
I also began to research the effects of electronic use on children. It turns out my fretting wasn’t unfounded. The Big Disconnect asserts, “While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.” While allowing my children generous access to X-box and iPad bought this often overwhelmed, homeschooling, introverted mama a few coveted moments of time, it was also time that significant moments and memories with my children could have been forged. I’m not saying that moms should never have moments to themselves, not at all, but I was beginning to use technology as a crutch to accomplish anything from cooking, to answering emails, to working. Those things could have just as easily have been accomplished if I had taken the time beforehand to encourage my children to play a game or create an art project. Sometimes electronics were more convenient, less messy, and more efficient, but at what cost?
Psychologist Steiner-Adair writes “we have reasons to be concerned…when the intimate nurturing surround of family is breached, and media and tech displace family as the context for defining values, modeling relationships, mentoring, and meaning making for our children.” Their media use combined with ours can inadvertently chip away at building strong familial bonds that we desperately try to recapture in their teen years. “Every time our child’s texting, TV, electronic games, social networking, take the place of family, and every time our tech habits interrupt our time with them, that pattern is broken and the primacy of family takes another hit.” Media and technology are so pervasive that we often don’t truly consider the repercussions of replacing family time with tech time. There’s also the conundrum of what happens when media exposes our kids to too much too soon. Steiner-Adair in The Big Disconnect laments, “Part of the job of parenting is to protect [children] from the harsh truth of [pain and suffering] long enough for them to develop a sense of goodness and core values of optimism, trust, internal curiosity, and a hunger for learning….Boys and girls are easily traumatized by premature exposure to the media-based adult culture that cultivates cynicism, treats sex and violence as entertainment, and routinely sexualizes perceptions of girls and women, and encourages aggression in boys.” We are raising our kids in an era that “normalizes lying, cheating, crass sexuality, and violence…where it’s cool to be cruel,” and these values permeate even the most seemingly innocent television programs and video games.
The field of research on how technology affects the developing brains of our children is emerging, and we just don’t know the long-term effects. What we have learned, though, is not encouraging. Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf explains “the speed and superficiality of the tech experience have thinned the neural experiences that create empathy. In contrast, activities such as reading books or other substantive content create complex arrays of neural pathways, the necessary rich weave of interconnectedness that develops empathy and allows it to deepen….The deeper connections that children make through reading, reflection, and conversation are what teach them ‘this is what it means to be good, this is what it means to be callous, this is what it means to be evil.'” Technology doesn’t fully engage our children in the way that reading and interacting with others can.
For all its benefits, it is still inferior to old-fashioned books and conversations. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and urges parents “to eliminate or at least minimize TV and tech time for young children and monitor it closely for older ones. Based on extensive three decades of research, the AAP concluded the best way for young children to learn to think creatively, to problem solve, and to develop reasoning, communication, and motor skills. Free play also teaches them how to entertain themselves, concluding: In today’s achievement culture, the best thing you can do for your young child is to give her a chance to have unstructured play-both with you and independently.” Children need space to be bored, to reflect, and think. “If you give them too many programmed games, or if they become addicted to playing on screens, children will not know how to move through that fugue state they call boredom, which is often a necessary prelude to creativity.” We need to give our children unfettered time to discover and to develop their passions.
I can personally vouch for this in my experience with my own children. Our unplugged weekly lifestyle has led to a surge of creativity in both of my children. In fact, with my daughter, we will often arrive at Sunday with her remarking, “I haven’t even played on X-box once this weekend.” Pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health muses, “We have to be very careful, particularly around the brain development period, but I think throughout childhood, that we’re not so busy stimulating these kids that they don’t have any downtime…..The mind needs time to wander, the mind needs boredom…to work well.” We are even seeing the effects of unfettered media use on our children’s learning potential. High school teacher Steven Fine says he “sees tech eroding students’ capacity for sustained attention, reflection, and deep thinking.” It’s a problem that will likely worsen as tech becomes more pervasive.
While technology certainly has its benefits and uses both personally and academically, the truth is we are allowing it to replace human connectivity to each other and within ourselves. I allowed it to get out of hand for a few months but discovered the effects to be far-reaching. My son especially exhibited the signs of a burgeoning addiction to tech, one that I see everywhere. Recently, at a basketball game, I observed a two-year old come apart when her iPad malfunctioned. She was inconsolable as her father sat next to this writhing toddler desperately attempting to reboot the disabled device. The little girl immediately relaxed as soon as her father placed the coveted device back into her eager hands. It’s a scene that I had watch unfold all too often in my own home. As I quietly observed the drama, I pondered whether or not this was healthy. We are handing devices to our children in order to keep the peace more and more often, and I can’t help but wonder is a few minutes of peace costing us true sanity in the long run? What is it doing to our children?
It’s questions like these that have prompted me to err on the side of caution. In my own experiment, I’ve already seen a positive change in my children, and as a result, hope to continue to reap the benefits of living a life more unplugged. The Big Disconnect ends with the phrase “Slow time no time always enough time.” As we throttle into a frenetic future propelled by the electrifying speed of electronic development, may we slow down long enough to ponder how this ever-increasing dependence on technology is affecting us and our children and choose to be more deliberate in how we spend our time, refusing to be sucked into the frenzied pace of the world around us. May we reclaim our love of reading, thinking, and dreaming for us and for our children.