Family Talk: Disconnecting devices and reconnecting with people
Are you like Jon? Jon was a divorced dad of a young daughter named Simone. He said, “Without my cellphone, I can't work or read emails or write to the women in my life. I can't write to Simone's nanny. I can't take pictures of my daughter. You can't do anything. The phone is you — a phone is your extension of your body. It's like ‘What can you do if we take your hands away for the next four hours?'”
Jon's story is told in the book "Reclaiming Conversation" by Sherry Turkle. Jon was a noncustodial parent frantic to find meaningful ways to interact with his elementary-aged daughter. He thought going on her school field trip might be a good way to connect. But Jon spent most of his time on his cellphone, taking pictures, posting, texting to friends. But not talking with his daughter. Jon finished his story like this:
“I took eight hundred pictures and I was sending out every picture, texting people who are responding to the pictures. I'm writing, writing, writing. And all of a sudden I'm realizing as I'm sitting there that Simone has been sitting there for, like, an hour without me saying a word to her. Finally, Simone said, “Put your phone down.”
Ouch. The child tells the parent to put the phone down.
Of course it works the other way, too. Parents often need to tell their kids to put the phone down. Both parents and children (and friends) need to learn how to have a conversation without a phone in their hand. But parents bear the main responsibility.
Turkle tells about a young pediatrician named Jenny Radesky who noticed more and more parents and caregivers were using smartphones when they were with their young children. Radesky did not believe this was healthy and did a study of adults watching over children as they ate meals together in fast food restaurants. “Across the board, the adults paid more attention to their phones than to their children. Some adults interacted intermittently but most withdrew completely into their devices. For their part, children became passive or detached or sought adult attention with bad behavior.”
Radesky concluded: “These are the times we get to listen to our kids and help them understand themselves and their experiences. This is how children learn to regulate strong emotions, how to read other people's social cues, and how to have a conversation — all skills that are much harder to learn later on, say at age 10 or 15.”
What about you? Are you like Jon or the parents in the Radesky study? Do you withdraw into your device, or do you make it a habit to put aside your smartphone in order to have direct eye contact conversations with your children (or spouse)? Because that's what it takes: Habiting yourself to disconnect from your device and to directly connect, with words and eye contact, with your family.
We'll continue to explore this idea of disconnecting devices and reconnecting with people in coming columns, but for now, it's sufficient to say, as Simone did, “Dad! Mom! Put down the phone!”
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.