Psychologically Speaking: The virtue of going unplugged

Dear Dr. Batya, I recognize that I am technologically challenged and my children tell me to get with the times, but I fear that my family is being destroyed by being plugged into everything else except the family.

Dear Dr. Batya, I recognize that I am technologically challenged and my children tell me to get with the times, but I fear that my family is being destroyed by being plugged into everything else except the family. Am I overreacting? - N.B., Kfar Saba I agree with you on this. I too am concerned that the family is changing; values we once thought important are going out the window. People used to talk and often did so face to face. Kids played outside with other children for hours and while burning off excess calories, they learned to socially negotiate their way in the world. Sadly, families in the same house e-mail each other, children choose to SMS their friends rather than talk "live" and the computer replaced the television which long ago replaced couples' conversations and much more. Family life can't compete with the fast paced world of technology. Children seem to complete homework assignments in between having chats with up to 30 or more of their buddies on line at the same time. We have come to believe that answering e-mails should take priority over a family meal, which for many have already become a rare occurrence. Where and how do we draw the line? What values are important to family life and how do we express them? Part of the difficulty lies in technology multi-tasking. Many of us try to do more than one thing at a time. While in the end we may accomplish everything, it may take longer, and each task is completed less efficiently. We have a new generation of children who no longer read books, are inattentive, can't focus or concentrate for long periods of time, become easily frustrated and want immediate gratification. School work is affected, social skills are less well developed and a sense of family cohesiveness is clearly missing. While I'd love to say it is "just the kids," many children have complained to me that when they've tried to talk to their parents they often got a "yes, dear" from a person whose eyes were glued to the computer screen and wasn't really listening. While these are only first steps, I present a few suggestions so that these stories don't become yours: 1) Establish family meals. Set a time at least a few times a week (preferably more) where everyone in the family will plan, prepare, eat and clean up a meal together. This is crucial time for exchanging stories, checking in with each other and strengthening family values. 2) Choose a family activity. Whether it is a bike ride, hike, bowling, a board game or making cookies, everyone can participate and feel good. 3) Get involved. Ask children what they do and how they do it so you can begin to understand what competes for your time. Only then can you reasonably limit time on the computer, television, cell phone, iPod and any other gadget that promotes solitary activity. Reexamine the role you want the cell phone, Internet and other such devices to have in both your and your child's life. Monitor both time spent and actual activities. Do you know for example, who your child chats with? Do they know your child? Set rules. 4) Time ratios. Become aware of just how much time everyone spends "doing their own thing" and compare it to time that is spent as a couple or family. Ask yourself if you are happy with the ratio of gadget time to shared time. If you are not satisfied, make changes. E-mail, for example, can be answered at a time that does not take away from other things or can be limited to 15 minutes a day. 5) Promote a social life. Have children get together to play. As adults, go out and socialize or invite other families over for a meal. 6) Relax. Promote down time. Children are often over-programmed as we adults have come to think that they must be busy or they are wasting their time. Push reading, relaxation and plain old-fashioned play: drawing, creating a craft, building, etc. Look at their schedule and see if it is realistic. While you may not have moved into the modern era, your children have, and there is a lot that is actually not bad and even good for your children. Just think how much easier it is to get information about a project from the Internet than the hours you spent writing out information at the library. 7) Communicate. Teach children how to really express themselves. This requires learning how to listen, developing patience and allowing others to talk. Help them learn how to interpret body language, facial expressions and eye contact. Remember, children learn choppy, shorthand, abbreviated speech when they talk via technology and are not used to giving it their undivided attention. There is an addictive quality to these new toys. Most people truly think they are on the computer for minutes when it turns into hours and they forget that they have been sending messages back and forth. Teach everyone that unplugging is safe, healthy and definitely a smart way to go from time to time! The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.