technology and families

Do you remember when the only television at home was in the family room? Or when your family traveled in the car and everybody looked for license plates from all 50 states? Now, practically every vehicle has a DVD player and every home has several televisions. Technology is everywhere. And that technology affects families.

In the last 50 years, technology has exploded. It is no longer in a fixed location with limited capability and parental supervision. It is literally unlimited and extremely difficult to regulate.

At a conference on strengthening the family, author and clinical counselor, John Van Epp asked:

  • To what extent will families allow technology to be fused with their relationships?
  • Are families unplugging devices to really plug into each other?

Based on several studies, it appears that families aren’t doing a great job of connecting.

Consider these examples of how technology affects families.

A group from Boston Medical Center watched family interactions in fast-food restaurants, specifically looking at how caregivers engaged with children. Out of 55 families, 40 parents were doing something with their phone. The researchers refer to this as “absorption with the mobile device.” When a child started started trying to get a parents attention, the child got in trouble for interrupting the parent.

UCLA anthropologist Elinor Ochs conducted an intensive in-home, four-year study of 32 families on this issue. Ochs found the primary theme in these homes was multi-tasking among family members. She cites an all-too-familiar conversation between parent and child: “My parents always tell me that I can’t do homework while listening to music, but they don’t understand that it helps me to concentrate.”

Strengthening his case, Van Epp cited David Myers’ work as the director of the University of Michigan’s Brain Cognition Lab. Myers is very clear that the brain does NOT multi-task. It may act in parallel functions (touch, sound, vision), but when engaging in distinctly different tasks, the brain operates like a toggle switch. It jumps from one thing to another. Myers debunks the myth that students are great multi-taskers, stating, “The bottom line is you CANNOT simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay.”

“This constant multi-tasking that people are doing results in dopamine ‘squirts.’ These lead to an addiction to constant techno-activity,” Van Epp said. “Yet, studies show that downtime for the brain is essential to the development of identity, morals, empathy and creativity.”

Van Epp issued a challenge: Lay your smart phone down. See if you can go for an hour without picking it up.

“Research shows that technology is actually producing higher rates of anxiety among children and adults,” Van Epp said. “Apps are influencing child development and short-circuiting identity formation. They’re also discouraging face to face interactions and creating superficial intimacy.”

If you still aren’t convinced this is an issue, check out Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain in the New York Times. And for good measure, watch Gary Turk’s Look Up video on YouTube. 

“We must begin balancing technology and real time with loved ones,” Van Epp said. “We can’t let technology define us. Advances in technology can never replace gains in family interactions.”

So, what about you? Will your family unplug devices in order to really plug into each other?

For more resources, see our Parenting and Families page here.

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