I hate to admit it, but I am guilty. I am guilty of teaching my children how to use technology badly. For instance, my daughter is sitting right next to me in the car and I spend the whole ride home on my cell phone, completely ignoring her. Or my kids and I sit in our living room on a rare evening with no scheduled activities, and we each quietly type away on our laptops, every now and then posting comments on each other’s Facebook page.
I guess its no surprise. After all, we are a highly wired, virtually connected family. The question becomes more uncomfortable, however, as I read new research coming out from cyber scholar Sherry Turkle. According to Turkle, we can’t use technology in a way that is unintentional or unbalanced and hope it doesn’t sift down to our kids–because it does. “After five years and 300 interviews, she has found that feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread. Her findings will be published in “Alone Together” early next year by Basic Books.”
The finding that just breaks my heart is the intense hurt children feel when parents make a choice to talk on the phone or check their laptop instead of pay attention to their children. While some kids act out in order to demand that attention back, many simply suck it up and learn how to deal with it, feeling a little less worthy every time their parent takes that call. And you can be sure that when those children grow up, they will do the exact same thing with the people who are important in their lives.
In addition to kids feeling ignored, displaced, and basically unworthy of their parents’ attention, kids of high-tech parents have a hard time developing a healthy sense of boundaries. And those boundaries can be important. In some of the research we did in 2007, we asked college students what they felt was the most important kind of rules they wished their parents had placed on them as middle school student users of technology. They overwhelmingly said they wished their parents had set stricter limits. They felt like they were now at college struggling with the discipline required to turn off the technology and disconnect when the situation called for it. They wished their parents had helped them develop that discipline when they were younger. Unfortunately, parents who are themselves unable to disconnect have a difficult time teaching discipline and limits to their kids.
I guess the moral of the story is that we can’t expect to raise kids who have the discipline to disconnect and engage in real-life, interpersonal interactions when we aren’t able to role model that in our own lives. Imagine what kind of powerful statement is communicated when you put away your cell phone each time your kid hops into the car. It communicates worth to your child and the fact that you have power to control your technology. Imagine that at the same time you have strict limits on how long your child can be on the computer or when they can use their cell phones, you follow the same limits and model healthy boundaries. Being intentional about how we use technology is not easy. But next time you reach for the phone or pop open the laptop, check to make sure you are balancing the need for your virtual connection with the need to model healthy choices to your kids.