Is Technology Controlling Your Family?

Family Matters on 10.20.11
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Photo: Laura St. John

Of course kids should be outside playing -- enjoying time just being a kid -- instead of sitting inside, glued to the television or computer. Isn't that a no-brainer?

We never picture our little darlings as obese, ignorant, cyber-bullying couch potatoes. We want our kids to be happy, healthy, responsible and safe. But you can't blame technology for taking control of your child's life: As parents, the choice is in our hands.

Completely Unplugged

I know a few people who have chosen to go completely unplugged - no computer, no TV, no video games. Wow, really? I admit that there are some days I should cut down on screen time in our household. But I can't imagine completely cutting out all the positive ways my kids use technology -- from Skyping to sing "Happy Birthday" to learning about sharks using the latest apps.

Being totally disconnected creates an unrealistic view of the fast-changing digital world. I want my kids to be competitive in the global economy, not at a disadvantage. Their ability to use technology effectively is a big part of their future success. Plus, since I get a queasy feeling when my cell phone battery dies, I know disconnecting is not the right choice for me.

Always Plugged

On the flip side, always being plugged in can be very harmful. Habitual connection can lead to poor time management skills, misunderstanding of technology's uses, and overall unhealthy habits, like obesity.

Being totally connected all the time makes you miss out on the real world going on around you - the everyday small stuff and interactions that make up life. I will never forget how rude I thought it was the first time I saw someone talking on a cell phone while walking around the grocery store. Years later, I practice tech etiquette and at least hang up before checking out so I can courteously smile and make small talk with the cashier. Now I've befriended a little old guy named Art, who helps bag my groceries and kindly offers to help me out to the car.

I decline the offer and prompt my boys to flex with me, asking, "How do you think we get these big muscles?" as we walk out -- a masterful attempt to distract them from the Red Box. Then we talk on the car-ride home, instead of just plugging in the car's DVD player.

Take Control of Techology

Don't let technology's control come between you and your kids. We are the parents: The power -- and the on/off button -- is in our hands. When you develop a clear tech routine in your household, you establish important boundaries and limits. This will help you avoid tech tantrums when it's time to unplug.

For me, the 'pause' button works miracles. It is a gentler way to transition them off technology and into a different activity. It also demonstrates that I understand their feelings -- I know it's hard to disconnect! Even though my kids typically choose something new next time they plug in, instead of picking up where they left off, the pause button lets me slyly stay in control and avert an unnecessary power struggle.

Create Balance: Don't Just Count Minutes

The solution to creating balance is not just about counting minutes and adding in physical activity. That is just a start. Over the years, hundreds of parents have asked me the same question -- how many minutes of screen time should they allow their children each day?  I wish there was a magical answer to make us all feel guilt-free in sticking our kids in front of technology.

Any amount of time your child spends on technology should be used for a meaningful purpose - even if it's for entertainment. Try to develop more tech awareness. Pay attention to the form of media, the number of minutes, and what your kids are using it for. Foster positive uses, like using technology as a tool for learning and creative self-expression. Avoid aimless surfing the web - it's a waste of time. Limit all social features - they are never safe without adult supervision. You'll feel less guilty about sticking your kids in front of technology knowing they're using it in beneficial ways. And don't forget to look at how you balance technology with the rest of your life, including your physical activities. We must demonstrate responsibility and good choices for our children.

Shouldn't grown-ups be outside playing - enjoying time with our kids, just being a grown-up version of the kid we used to be? Now that's the real no-brainer!

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Do You Model Unhealthy Tech Habits?
Create a Safe Tech Routine in 3 Simple Steps