One day our family pulled up in our minivan behind a teen girl who was walking down the middle of our street. With her earbuds in and eyes locked on her phone, she had no idea we were there. We followed her a little ways. My husband, James, was driving, and while he didn't want to startle her, I think he was tempted to tap the horn so we could get on our way. The girl finally veered over to the sidewalk, utterly clueless about the 2-ton minivan behind her.
Thankfully, most teens today aren't texting from the middle of roads, oblivious to traffic. But they are missing other things — relationships, conversations, connections — when they constantly tune out the outside world in favor of apps, video games and social media posts.
Using electronic devices creates a communication bubble around a child, rendering the outside world meaningless. If your son is engrossed in a video game, it's nearly impossible for him to listen to Grandpa's stories. Likewise, your daughter won't have capacity to sit down and chat when she has texts to respond to and social media sites to update. Over time, these habits dramatically alter their social skills and interest in relating to other people.
How do we pop the tech bubble that is mesmerizing this generation? How can we help our children value face-to-face relationships in our obsessively self-centered digital culture? Here are some ideas to start with:
Build a "people-first" culture
Since screen time erodes relationship skills, a big first step is to nurture a family culture that values people and face-to-face relationships over screen time. As a family, commit to some sensible guidelines for screens in the home and when you're out in public. One of the best decisions you can make is to have mealtimes without screens at the table or on in the background. If it's one of those meals where someone wants to photograph the food, do it quickly, but then put away the cellphone. Do not touch it. Enjoy the company of each other without needless interruptions. By practicing this courtesy, your family will be part of a happy minority. A recent study found that 81 percent of American restaurant diners spend time looking at their phones while eating.
After mealtime, don't rush to pick up the screen. Yes, it's convenient for each person in the family to unwind with screens as each sees fit, but this atmosphere can be isolating.
In addition, commit to the habit of leaving all family phones outside bedrooms for the night. If you're thinking you can't possibly go to sleep without your phone nearby, tell yourself you can do it — and then commit to it! Try this experiment for a week: Charge your phone in another room, and don't check it as the last act of the day. Instead, read from the Bible, pray or jot down some memories from the day, things you're thankful for. There are more important matters of the heart to mull over before bedtime than what updates you may be missing from screenland.
Be on the lookout
I was very shy as a girl. I always wanted to stay with my parents at church. (If we'd had smartphones back then, I could easily have been pulled into that world.) But my mom insisted I go to youth group meetings. "Look for girls who are sitting alone," she advised me. "Ask questions. I'm sure they could use a friend." Gradually, I overcame my shyness by taking an interest in others.
I think many kids today have a different type of shyness that keeps them fixed on a screen when real people are around. It's almost as if they're intimidated by real conversations, cultivating their relationships and sense of identity entirely through a phone.
As parents, we must seek to raise kids who value the pursuit of real-world relationships. You, too, can pass along my mom's advice to your kids, encouraging them to always be on the lookout for people with whom they can share a lunch, co-labor on an assignment or go for a walk together. Ask them, "Is there anyone new in your class this year?" or "Do you have a friend who could use some encouragement this week?"
Many kids are good at talking about themselves, but it's hard to find a child who is good at listening to others. To encourage this, teach your children to ask questions and show genuine interest in others. They can ask kids things like, "Do you have a pet?" or "What do you like to do on the weekend?" When they meet adults, they can say, "Tell me about your job," or ask, "Do you have any hobbies?" A listening, inquiring spirit is an invaluable relational skill.
Outside of school and church, you may find other opportunities to encourage your children to practice using their relationship skills. We live near a veterans home. My 13-year-old son, Ethan, is an avid reader of books about World War II. It hit me like a lightning bolt one day: Why don't I connect Ethan with a war veteran? I called the veterans home and asked if they could use a middle school piano player. Ethan was soon playing George Gershwin for a dozen veterans during a coffee break. You should have seen their faces light up with hope and fond remembrance. At the end, Ethan listened to a WWII veteran share stories and proudly show off his Purple Heart and Bronze Star. When our children take time to connect with others, there are some wonderful surprises along the way.
Practice the pivot
As parents, we may talk about real relationships with our kids, but if we are too busy texting and emailing to look into our children's eyes, we aren't really living it out. We cannot expect our children to be engaged with others if we are preoccupied by our screens. I'm not writing from a place of perfection with this. In my home office, my eyes are glued to my computer screen. These moments of tension between work and mom life led me to a transforming practice I call "the pivot."
When I sense someone approaching, I turn my chair away from the screen and toward my loved one. (If I'm on my phone, I look up.) I smile and look the person in the eyes. This body language says, "I'm listening."
My daughter Lucy loves hugs. When she walks to my desk, I employ the pivot before she reaches me. I'll greet her with a big hug. After this positive attention, she'll happily trot off to her next thing, and the whole interaction takes less than 30 seconds.
But when I don't turn for that hug and Lucy has to wait for me at my desk while I finish a sentence or two, the interaction takes much longer and is much less satisfying for both of us. I'm frustrated by the interruption, and she's frustrated by being ignored. On the other hand, the pivot doesn't take long, but it communicates volumes. It says to my family member, "You are more valuable to me than a piece of hardware."
Can you imagine how different our world would be if more parents and teens practiced the pivot? Teach them to place a priority on the person in front of them. If they're texting while someone approaches, encourage them to stop texting for a few moments — even if they just look up and say, "Let me finish this sentence, and then I'll be right with you." Ideally, they'd stop and give the other person their full attention, but even if they ask for a delay, that's better than simply ignoring someone.
May our children grow into adults who value human connection more than digital "likes" and who would never walk in the middle of the road glued to a smartphone. There is so much more to see in life than a string of selfies.Arlene Pellicane is a speaker and the author of Calm, Cool, and Connected: 5 digital habits for a more balanced life.
Life Outside the Bubble
No family can completely avoid technology. But we can be wiser about its use. Here are three ideas to help keep our kids from disappearing into a tech bubble:
Limit the hits
Social media and video games are addictive. Researchers have determined that a time of screen detox can be very healthy. If a child would be obviously anxious about missing device time for a week, she's a good candidate for a fast.
When they head back to social
media, encourage your kids to use it for building connections with a handful of friends rather than
scrolling through news feeds to check in on the masses. When they use social media
to stay in touch with just a few people, it can enhance relationships.
Go online with a purpose
Technology supposedly helps us with organization and time management. Yet much like flipping through TV channels, we often wander aimlessly through an overwhelming amount of information and updates. Do we really need to know what a friend had for dinner or if a famous couple splits up?
Teach your kids to ask this question before picking up their phone or computer: "What am I here to do?" Make sure there's a concrete answer before proceeding: "I'm going to text my friend about the band concert" or "I'm finishing my book report."
Have your teens disappeared into "screenland"? Tune in to our broadcast for helpful tips on how to connect with them. FocusOnTheFamily.ca/radio
"I'm multitasking!" a teen may say, texting a friend while writing his history report.
Multitasking gives the illusion of working smart, but research suggests it's not all it's cracked up to be. According to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, multitaskers usually waste a lot of time because they "can't filter out irrelevancy," he says. "They're chronically distracted." Nass says that multitasking also interferes with memory skills needed in real-world relationships. If a teen is talking with a friend and texting at the same time, it's often difficult to recall the information shared in person.
Teach your kids to concentrate on one task at a time — engaging in conversation, finishing homework, completing chores — instead of continually switching from task to task.