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Times of the Islands Magazine

Balancing Technology and Family Life

Nearly every family in Western society owns and uses a multitude of technologies. Tech use starts in utero, when an individual’s first picture is likely to be a sonogram that’s shared with friends and family via social media and email. After the birth there are baby monitors, talking mobiles over the crib and huggable cloth dolls that sound like a mother’s beating heart. This may be the stage in which people are most comfortable about the uses of technology.

When children are young, it’s a great time to start using technologies that bring the family closer together. Grandkids and grandparents can interact even if they’re on different sides of the country or world. Voice-enabled devices such as Alexa and Google Home can provide interactive family entertainment. Children learn positive uses of technology when they say, “Tell me a story” or “Tell me a joke,” or ask questions we once used encyclopedias to answer. 

While they are still infants and toddlers, children start to engage with technologies such as mobile phones and tablets. It’s a rare parent who has not handed a phone to a fussy child to distract and quiet him or her. A study presented at the Pediatric Academic Society’s 2015 annual meeting showed that more than a third of children under age 1 have used a device such as a smartphone or tablet. The authors surveyed 370 parents of children ages 6 months to 4 years about their exposure to media and electronics. 

They found that 52% of children under age 1 had watched TV and 36% had touched or scrolled a screen. The amount of time the children spent using devices rose as they got older, with 26% of 2-year-olds and 38% of 4-year-olds using devices for at least an hour. That number has undoubtedly increased given mobile device proliferation since 2015.

Anyone raising a child today may have fretted about screen time, wondering what impact it may have upon children. This is when common sense must prevail. Details are critical. What matters is the child’s age, length of time he or she uses the device, and whether it starts replacing parental or caregiver playtime, the reading of stories or pointing out things in the child’s surroundings. 

Time and engagement with people are critical to children’s learning but getting anxious about distracting them while waiting in a line or when you have a headache is bad for everyone. If technology is used judiciously, there should be minimal risk of overuse and overdependence.

In previous decades, the TV screen and telephone line were tethered to the house and were shared resources. Now that they’ve become more personal, portable, ubiquitous and affordable, devices can be in a child’s bedroom, without adult supervision. This is when conscious decision making has its role. Just as in earlier times, parents have to decide how much screen/phone time should be allowed, where and when it is allowed, whether the content is appropriate and whether the people their children spend time with are desirable friends.  

During my experience as a 70-plus woman—mother, grandmother, career woman and retiree—I’ve witnessed amazing changes in technology. My life has spanned the years from listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio, through the birth of traditional TV and cable, and into an age in which I stream Netflix and Amazon Prime movies as a matter of course. 

Twice-daily postal deliveries morphed into email and text. Voice communications went from dialing “0” to connect long-distance calls to Internet calling and voice mail. The computer and mobile phone have become communications devices for Skype and FaceTime video calls. I’ve worked with computers that filled a large room and now have a much more powerful one on my wrist. I’ve had decades of experience coping with technology and children and grandchildren—and it’s never easy to find the right balance.

The press is full of stories about children locking themselves in their rooms and playing video games for hours or meeting undesirable people in chat rooms. Technology can wreck marriages when adults get addicted to online gambling or pornography.

For some, there’s a sense that technology is a threat that exposes people to dangerous things. The reality is that there have always been dangerous things in the world and it’s always been up to parents to educate themselves and their children about possible pitfalls. Today’s parents are increasingly tech savvy and can ask the right questions to make themselves comfortable with how their children are spending their tech time.

It was never really possible to protect children from all the bad things in the world; it’s just that all those things are so much more public. That’s why parents need to establish a relationship of openness and trust with their children.

And the question of balance is not only about children. Parents set role models. If adults spend dinnertime staring at smartphone screens instead of interacting with family members, it’s hard to expect children to behave differently. With any new technology it takes time to establish social norms and what is considered “acceptable.”

Some families think the dinner table should be a “tech-free zone” and when people gather at the table they put their phones on silent and leave them in a basket. The important part of this is that the family has established an understanding of what constitutes acceptable behavior.

For families without children or whose children have grown and moved away, establishing understandings about technology use is equally important. Children are not the only ones whose use of technology can lead to negative behaviors. There are equally disruptive adult behaviors that are intertwined with Internet or smartphone use.

The problem is not technology per se, but its “always on” nature and pervasiveness that can lead astray people who have addictive tendencies. Whether it’s gaming or pornography or even working—to the exclusion of all other activities—technology provides the mechanism for negative interactions.

One of the benefits technology has provided employees is the flexibility to leave work for important things such as a doctor’s appointment and then finish their work at home. Technology lets workers telecommute and spend the time they used to be driving with their family instead. However, this capability has a downside, as the boundary between home and work environments has become increasingly porous. 

Some employers expect employees to respond to emails and requests at any time. If this becomes burdensome or starts creating stress within one’s family, it may be time to think about whether to express that to the manager. If always needing to be “available” is actually a condition of employment, it may be time to explore whether there are other jobs available without such invasive expectations.

Technology can also enable adults in the household to share chores that are part of family living. Mobile applications such as shared shopping or to-do lists can lessen the burden on one person of doing all the shopping or maintenance tasks that require attention. Openly discussing expectations can be critical to success. 

Some families have aging parents who live at a distance and feel isolated from younger members of the family. Video chat and social media keep seniors in touch, bringing them up to date on an adult child’s latest promotion or grandchild’s new baseball trophy. Some technologies enable family members of multiple generations to engage in games and competitions. Whether it is “Words with Friends” or who has the most consecutive days of exercising, these activities can engage a wide range of family members no matter where they are. 

While there’s a widespread belief that older people are technology averse, that gap has been shrinking as baby boomers age. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated that about 42% of adults 65 and older own smartphones, and home broadband adoption among this group has also risen substantially. Technology adoption varies greatly by household income and educational attainment—fully 87% of seniors living in households earning $75,000 or more a year say they have home broadband.

Balancing technology is like achieving balance in any aspect of our lives. We need to assess our current situation and decide if we want some things to be different. We need to take into account the other people with whom we interact and live. Technologies, people and situations change. It’s not a destination, but rather an ongoing process.

Written by Sandy Teger, who lives on Sanibel and is a part-time technology consultant at System Dynamics Inc. She’s also a grandmother of four, organizes the annual Sanibel Captiva Heart Walk and is a garden and wine enthusiast.