Can anyone think of an issue more completely frustrating to parents than electronics-obsessed kids? I don’t think so. Not only do we incessantly talk about this concern among ourselves, numerous books and articles are written telling us how bad the problem is – warning us that it’s getting worse.
For many years, in my work as a psychologist, I’ve tried to adopt a more moderate approach to electronics. For example, I believe that young people will eventually carve the world in their own image. Which is to say that the state of mind shaped by constant exposure to electronics will eventually become the norm. Quite frankly, electronics are already so thoroughly intertwined with the mindset, recreation, and communication of youth that for most, it’s hard to feel young without continuous electronic interaction.
Think about that, and realize that when we ask kids to shut down, we’re also asking them to give up their way of being – to part ways with what feels good and natural to them.
Over the years, I’ve also advised families that electronica is not a problem for everyone, at least not to the same degree. I still believe that. Some young people who work with me want to check their phones during the course of sessions, others tell me their phones are “annoying.” It’s awesome to meet someone who isn’t hypnotized by screens.
But the bottom line is that there are plenty of families for whom the issue looms large. We all know parents who fret silently, or who commiserate with friends, about the changing atmosphere of family life. We may all sit in one room, but some may live in private electronic orbits, barely noticing those in our immediate physical presence. To be sure, contemporary life is full of the “together alone” phenomenon so many writers have discussed.
If this newsletter has been forwarded to you by a colleague or friend, please consider
subscribing to Family Matters at Dr.AdamCox.com
Anyway, I realize you already know this. I don’t think your primary interest is further explanation of how electronics might adversely affect someone, or undermine family flow. I think you want to know what to do; how to change direction and regain connection with the primary people of interest in your life.
Clue: The answer is not regressive over-reaction. More specifically, I don’t think we can make big, lasting differences by leveraging parental authority.
I recently heard Dr. Leonard Sax giving advice along these lines on an NPR radio segment, where he was discussing his book, The Collapse of Parenting. Sax gave an example, describing how parents who let a younger teen take his phone up to his bedroom at night shouldn’t be surprised if the child is tired in the morning because he stayed up late texting friends. Well, I agree that parents should intervene where young people are making poor decisions, but that sort of intervention is woefully inadequate for all but the youngest, given what electronics now mean to kids.
The problem has less to do with exposure to electronica, than what electronica means to young people. We can’t take away what is perceived as a “lifeline” without offering an alternative. Specifically, an alternative life focus or purpose.
With younger children, where we have more control, and where rebellion is minimal, we should greatly limit exposure to electronics. For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no television before age two, and other nations, including Canada, England, and Australia, are also developing similar guidelines. When we do allow children to watch television, we should control the amount and content. We should not hand young children our phone or iPad every time they are bored, or we feel the need for a mental break. When we serve up electronics at the very moment that boredom becomes crankiness, we link electronics with emotional relief, and teach an unfortunate, enduring message. “Play with this, it will numb you to the problem of boredom.” This is conditioning children to use electronics as an emotional crutch. How is that so different from using alcohol to cope with work stress?
Regarding older kids, those between 12 and 18, we can try to become Supermoms and Superdads, monitoring electronics use constantly, but in the end it will mostly lead to conflict and stress – unless it is replaced with something else. That part of the equation cannot be ignored. It is not realistic to expect young people to remove entertaining stimulation without a viable substitute. What could this be?
It’s us, of course! We have each other, although many of us have lost the knack for creating social interest and activity across generations, personalities, and schedules. In this regard, for all the hype attached to social media, we are generally less socially skilled people. (I’m kicking around a new concept: social skills groups for families!)
Confession: I am the parent of a teenager who enjoys electronics as much as his peers. We all check our electronics for work and school, as well as recreation, but we began to notice how the “checking in” could put a damper on some family interaction. As a doctor with many people on my mind, it’s easy for me to fall into checking my phone, but as you know, that’s one step from checking the latest sports stats. I’m sure it’s the same in many homes, where intentions are good, but less stellar habits begin to form. On January 1st, following a long discussion and debate, my family turned off the cable and Wi-Fi at home. We wanted to see how this would affect family time. We live in a somewhat rural area, so turning off the Wi-Fi effectively means no internet access.
Observations: It can make some people feel a bit edgy to live without television and internet. How much this was a function of unplugging during the depths of a New England winter, where it’s dark by 4:30 pm and too cold to enjoy many outdoor activities is another question. We did, however, listen to lots of public radio, and we did this together, each of us tracking the same story. This lends itself to great family conversation. We learned to be more curious about each other’s perspectives, and to ask better questions. We spent more time talking about a single topic, and sometimes the conversation carried over from one day to the next. We did more reading, and listened to music together. We felt less mentally fatigued at bedtime, and more refreshed in the morning. We had to contend with times of boredom, but that mostly when we were too tired to do something active. I sometimes missed the news and live sports (Suggestion: do not attempt this experiment during the NFL playoffs – OMG!). One of us really missed online games. But it was an enlightening family experiment, and we no longer feel that the default entertainments in our home are screen-based.
We chose to restart the television and Wi-Fi after six weeks, but our media habits are much different. We choose radio or books more often than before the experiment. We have a much better understanding of how electronica and television affects our moods. We started doing stuff that is at least as interesting as games or TV; for example, my son and I decided to build a boat.
One thing is for sure, we will not get any traction in getting young people unplugged if our only plea is a moral imperative. Arguing about whether electronics is a good use of time leads nowhere. Young people do not perceive electronics as a moral issue, only as a source of highly stimulating fun. This is why clinging to a “tradition” fantasy like, “if only we were stricter,” will have little long-term effect. Instead, we ought to be able to make the argument that there are more interesting ways to spend one’s time.
A non-negotiable element of long-term success:We must insert ourselves, meaning our time and attention, into the equation.
Herein lies the problem.
If we are not willing to be a part of an alternative narrative, then all of our pleading and suggestions will have little traction. My strong belief is that attention is more social than solitary – it is something better enjoyed together. So we need a social focus in order to accomplish an attentional shift. I realize it would be good if kids would just put down the electronics, go outdoors, and do something more physically recreational. Or perhaps they could sign up for some type of crafts course, join an organization, take a walk – do something that got them out of the house, trying new things.
Some kids will act along these lines, but the vast majority need to be pulled from electronica by someone who promises to lead them to something equally, or more interesting. What I’m suggesting may seem radical, but it’s a less drastic approach than some take, for example Chinese “internet junkie” rehabilitation centers. In China, internet addiction is classified as a form of mental illness, and some youth who spend too much time online are sent to military-style boot camps that are opening across that country.
Hint: A verbal description of the alternatives will not set your kids on fire to do daring outdoor deeds, or whatever wholesome project you’ve imagined. Unless your kids are equally eager to try this experiment, expect their enthusiasm to be tempered, if not outright disbelieving. Power through the expressionless faces, lack of verbal response, eye-rolls, mumbled profanities, slammed doors, etc. Until the “doing” of an alternative activity starts, no one can reliably say what they like or prefer.
Hint #2: One of the worst things we can say is “find something else to do.” That sort of suggestion is a flight from the issue at hand; it is a denial of our own relevance. It is a denial that our own busyness has in part spurred infatuation with electronics.
If we think in terms of a more social arrangement, the outcome will be much better. But we have to be willing to lead by example, which means setting down our own electronics. I don’t think we can use a double standard and say “because I’m older, I get to use my phone as much as I want while we are all sitting together in the living room.” I know there is some degree of rational truth to this notion, but it comes across as patently unfair. It’s a declaration of superiority. I encourage all members of your family to experiment with going on a visual media holiday.
An underlying assumption: There is no practical way to live well without frequent intelligent conversation.(And I don’t mean watching political TV.)
Intelligent conversation is more important than whatever brain science can tell us about who we are as organisms. Intelligent conversation is a relative concept. The idea is not that conversation must be inherently intellectual, so much as that it needs to stretch the limits of our respective capabilities. We want to be asked questions. And we should be encouraged to ask questions of others. We should, at a young age, become accustomed to talking about important things with the most important people in our lives.
If you haven’t yet read The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups, by Erika Christakis, I encourage to discreetly stop what you are doing, quietly leave the room, and order yourself a copy. Wow! I have not finished the book, but I love what Christakis says about artmaking for young children. For example, how cutting out a turkey shape at Thanksgiving art class sells kids short – even the youngest artists.
There is so much potential to engage young artists in real expressive activities, enhanced by intelligent conversation. What are we doing assigning these lame art projects year after year? Who is this stuff for? Do we as parents need affirmation of “cuteness?” No wonder so few kids develop an authentic interest in art! Please take a closer look at the programs of the Children’s Art Guildfor a more concise understanding of what is at stake. The Guild is providing an excellent model of how to go down a different, more meaningful path.
In my own therapy with children, I talk much more about nature, sports, inventions, empathy, art, books, friends, and school than I do about rules and the elements of good behavior. I understand if you are skeptical, but the net result is greater engagement, respectfulness, and cooperation. This comprises the “holding environment” in which a corrective emotional experience can take place. Patience and persistence are perennial winners. Change begins as soon as we accept: “There is no rush. We have one life, let’s get it right.”
Conclusion: Getting unplugged is mostly about expanding the potential for love. To the extent that we hover in separate mental orbits, love, as expressed by curiosity, inquiry, conversation, respect and cooperation – are blocked. Taking the time to get unplugged will have a more dramatic effect on family life than the next President, the economy, or more stuff. Please harness the power of your living room – this is where a new family direction begins.
The only electronic activity in my office is a microphone and amplifier (part of an old karaoke machine) that sit on the worktable. With this microphone, we sometimes take turns doing mock advertisements of products and services. This is mildly subversive, and you may justifiably wonder how it is therapeutic. Well, it has helped many shy, hesitant kids find their voice; it is superb social skills training for those who are awkward. It also builds an awareness of the kind of communication others use when they attempt to influence us for their own gains. On top of all that, it’s also funny and playful; it increases likability and comfort, enhancing the “holding environment.” And I throw down the gauntlet: I challenge game manufacturers to devise a game as inventive, humorous, and interesting as the mock ads created in my office.
Take home messages:
- Do something.
- Make something.
- Make the scale large and ambitious.
- Have it take up lots of time.
- Don’t worry about finishing it this year.
- If you are a child therapist, get a karaoke machine ASAP.
Bringing scale into young people’s helps put life in perspective. They will feel enlarged rather than diminished by attempting something significant. There are limitations in a clinical office that can be overcome at home.
A Toxic Hurdle
If you are afraid of your son or daughter’s anger (not afraid they will assault you, simply afraid of their emotional intensity), I’ve got some bad news. You have lost the ability to influence them. When we do feel afraid of anger, it’s a strong sign that we have lost meaningful contact; that there is a breakdown in attachment. Like adults, all young people occasionally get angry. But when the anger is unrestrained rage, laced with dismissive disrespect, you’re in big trouble. There’s no potential for reasoning or discussion. There’s only war, and you need a third party to intervene. It’s hard to recover from this position – I encourage you to avoid this level of conflict by staying emotionally and ideologically connected with your children from the time they are very young. This is the ultimate antidote to ADHD, and the intrusive powers of electronica.
The conversations I am suggesting here warrant greater explanation and community involvement. These days I travel often to address these topics for schools, community programs, and child advocacy groups. This sort of program gets people on the same page and can jumpstart a community effort toward alternatives to electronica. I think that at this point, we need to do more than identify the problem. We need to create substantive, realistic, and informed responses. I like to be able to demonstrate how parents, teachers, and students can get a conversation going, IRL (in real life)!
Please let me know if your school or community group would be interested in hosting this type of event. I am equally interested in addressing parents, professional staff, and young people.
Typically, I work with more than one group during a visit. Sometimes there is opportunity for more intensive work with smaller groups of students, following a larger presentation.
I also humbly ask that you share this newsletter with anyone who might be interested in the content. I write this newsletter to decrease the sense of separation we sometimes feel, especially when struggling with a problem. My effort is only worthwhile if the message has some velocity. Please share.
Please also visit my most recent blog posts, including:Boys Sad About Breaking-up with Themselves. A thousand “thank you’s” for reading. You’re awesome. Be well.