*The digital danger and how to avoid it*

An eye-opening volume on how gadgets have transformed family life and children’s behavior – is required reading.

April 18, 2015 21:32
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Social media apps Twitter and Facebook [Illustrative]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The digital age is wonderful! Obtain information in seconds that in a previous era would have sent you to the library for hours.

Keep in touch at all times with your family here and abroad with via email, WhatsApp, Twitter and Skype. Read books, tour faraway museums, play console games and order your groceries, clothes and gadgets online. How did we ever manage without all this? THE TECH world is destroying us and our family relationships. We are always busy and working wherever we are, and we don’t have time for our parents, kids or spouse.

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Youngsters’ loneliness for real connections abounds and alienation flourishes. Even infants play with tablets instead of blocks.

Children spend an average of seven hours daily pressing keys and buttons and swiping screens with their index fingers and don’t have time for meaningful connections. They can download a smartphone app before they learn how to tie their shoelaces. Exposed to dangerous contacts with strangers through “sexting” and free pornography at every turn, they increasingly lack an appreciation of right and wrong. Life will never be the same. Smart phones, smart watches, tablets and social networks are indeed a double- edged sword. Without paying attention, our lives have been transformed, and many families are at a loss to cope with it.

DR. CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR, an internationally recognized clinical psychologist at Harvard, school consultant, author and mother of two from Massachusetts has grappled with these changes in a new book (written with journalist Teresa Barker). Although The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, published by Harper, is scientifically based with almost 80 pages of bibliography, notes and acknowledgements, it will interest everyone.

Steiner-Adair begins the 374-page book by recalling a client named Sally recalling a hair-raising experience. Asking her three school-age children (15 to eight) to keep an eye on their four-year-old sibling while she folded the laundry in the next room and checked her smartphone for email for a few minutes, she returned to find the youngest with a wide-tipped purple Magic Marker in his hand, having left a permanent trail of ink all over the hardwood floor and wood cabinets.

Busy with their digital gadgets, none of the siblings had noticed.

“This might just as easily have occurred if they’d had the TV on or if they’d had their noses buried in a book, reading the afternoon away like generations before them,” Steiner-Adair writes. “But in that instant, Sally saw something more worrisome, felt something deeper and more ominous. First, she realized that when she had turned her attention to email, however briefly, her intuitive ‘third eye’ – the parental antenna – had suddenly lost its signal...Then there was the specter of her three older children, each lost in a mind meld with screens...I feel there’s something about those screens that sucks my children away from me. Something that I don’t think The Brady Bunch did to me and my siblings when we were growing up,” Sally said.

What made Sally wistful was not her favorite TV show but the fact that as a child she could easily leave the screen and get on with real life – homework, outdoor play and after-school hours with friends, a solid dinner hour with parents and siblings and unhurried phone conversations that arrived on her family’s landline. Steiner-Adair uses the word “addiction” to describe the tech world, and she means it. “Pregnant women who regularly use cellphones may be more likely to have children with behavioral problems,” she writes, quoting an epidemiology journal, especially if the children start using mobile phones early. The production of neurotransmitters, especially dopamine, in the pleasure centers of the brain shoots up when we use digital devices.

She quotes another mother who said about fundamental changes in family life: “I have this feeling that we all just camped out in the house on these different screens, and I feel like there’s been this deterioration of connection.” The author felt it herself when going to Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery, where John F. Kennedy and many soldiers were buried; people were talking loudly on their phones and kids were texting and laughing among the solemn surroundings, showing no quiet respect.

BUT NOT only children are guilty; so are parents who are too busy with their own digital devices. “When my dad is on the phone, I have this conversation in my head: ‘Hello! Remember me? Remember who I am? I am your daughter!” the author quotes. “You had me cuz you wanted me. Only it doesn’t feel like that right now. Right now it feels like all you care about is your phone.” Close, significant interactions with adults in their lives are less common.

“Parents who have long prided themselves on protecting, providing and promoting a values-rich childhood for their children are feeling increasingly irrelevant in their children’s technology-driven lives. And they are right,” notes Steiner-Adair. “Our household is eerily silent at night now because everyone is on their own machine, their own little screen,” she writes, quoting another mother.

“Parents have lost their job – sometimes unwittingly abdicated it – at a time when they are most desperately needed by kids who are not only growing up faster but growing into a world that no longer protects childhood,” the author bemoans.

As a psychologist, she continues, “I see battle lines drawn at ever-earlier ages over texting, screen time and freedom to roam the Internet.”

Parents hear disturbing reports from schoolteachers who see adverse effects on children’s play, intellectual curiosity, learning and social and emotional development.

Kindergarten teachers say children tend to prefer digital, press-button toys that offer instant gratification and forsake traditional ones that stimulate creativity and require effort to make real achievements.

Nasty statements about another child on WhatsApp or Facebook can be forwarded to others and remain permanently alive, hurting the author and the subject of the slur instead of being forgotten as a word in the school lunchroom or scrawled as graffiti on the bathroom wall.

“None of us can know the long-term effects of public self-disclosing in online posts and photos, saved texts, tweets and YouTube videos,” writes Steiner-Adair. “Children are especially vulnerable both as instigators and victims as they develop online personas even as their own identity is a work in progress. Every day there are adolescents posturing online as haters, hookers and hell raisers.”

Girls have been told online that they’re fat, ugly and won’t be invited to parties because of it, sending the subject of abuse to bouts of depression, anorexia and even – on rare occasions – suicide.

THE FIRST two years of life are critical in the development of the infant’s brain, and if parents are too busy to interact in a genuine way – to play with, hug and talk to them – the opportunity will be lost forever or require repairs. “As hard as it is to get up night after night with your infant,” the author says, “I believe there is brilliant architecture in nature’s design. As parents, our babies call us into a shared experience of solitude from the moment they arrive. They teach us how to find solace and comfort in dark hours as we comfort them. On a good night we do or, if that is not to be, we learn to stay the course and love them anyway. Whether in the nursery or a rocking chair, we create sanctuary with our babies. We make a sacred place. The moments and hours we spend in that close communion train the intuitive sense of mind and heart.”

She advises parents to keep TVs, computers and other screens out of the baby’s room to give them your full attention. Instead, read to your baby without interruption.

Keep your eyes on the baby when he or she crawls and climbs. “Of course, there will be times you will need to take a call or check and email, or multitask. But the more we can do this mindfully and consistently for our children, the more likely we are to preserve the primacy of we.”

Subsequent chapters are divided among age groups, for ages three to five (day care and kindergarten); six to 10 (first years of elementary school); 11 to 13 (when children are particularly susceptible to online sexting and the sending and receipt of offensive photos and messages); and 14 to 18. Each group faces its own types of digital dangers.

Steiner-Adair spent six months after publication on speaking tours and met many parents, educators and even children who offered their comments. A New York Times book reviewer found her book “unsettling but necessary.” “The troubling side of our relationship with tech,” she said later, “is something parents probably already know but do their best not to think about. The most gratifying thing I’m hearing from parents, educators, and even kids, is that they’re ready not only to think about it and talk about it, but do something about it. That’s not easy when there’s so much to love about tech and how it can genuinely enrich our lives when used wisely. But as much as we love tech, we love our kids more.”

She urges teachers and school principals to expand core curriculum to teach pupils at every grade “the social and emotional skills they need to be safe and smart digital citizens.”

Pupils should learn how to “talk honestly about the disconnect between who they are in class and who they are in the 24/7 online extended day after school. I hear it when parents ask me how to respond when they discover their kids are in intimate online conversations with people they have never met in the real world, in a gaming posse or on social networking sites revealing personal and private family information, then making plans to meet up or hook up with a naive trust that is disconcerting to parents.”

In her final chapter (“The Sustainable Family”), which begins 260 pages after the initial discussion of the problem, Steiner-Adair describes some ways to deal with it, advising parents to try to minimize technology at home and provide a place where they can listen, set limits and communicate with their offspring. Play board games at home and spend time together outdoors.

Parents should insist, from the beginning if possible, that they have access to their children’s smartphone, WhatsApp, Facebook and other accounts so they can monitor communications and keep them out of trouble.

“The sustainable family recognizes the pervasive presence of tech in today’s world and develops a family philosophy about using it that reflects and supports the family’s values and well-being,” she writes. Install protective software to limit children’s access to levels of content for which they are not developmentally ready or that you simple don’t want them to see and hear.

ONE UNIQUELY Jewish piece of advice missing absent from the volume offers at least a partial solution to “the disconnect” described in the book – Shabbat and festivals on which using and even touching any electronic device is absolutely forbidden. Being able to do without them for at least 25 hours a week gives the child – and adult – the necessary self control so that one is not a slave to tech. Having three Shabbat meals together binds the family and enables members to talk in the real world. Without preaching the benefits of observance, one could suggest even to secular parents a house prohibition of digital gadget use one day a week – any day. The traditional family will reappear, at least on a weekly basis.

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