It's a typical evening at Chez Tynan-Wood. I come home to find my wife curled up in an overstuffed chair with a glass of pinot grigio and her tablet PC, shopping, managing our online calendars or playing solitaire. I hear the burble of YouTube from my 14-year-old son's laptop. My tween is on her desktop PC, listening to iTunes while simultaneously texting three friends. I sit on the couch and break out my netbook to check e-mail and Twitter for the 97th time that day. In fact, the only members of the household not looking at a screen are the dogs, who frisk me with enthusiasm in the hope I've brought home Chinese food.
Are we digitally distracted? You bet. Less connected as a family than we could be? No doubt. And though as technology journalists my wife and I are probably more engulfed in gadgetry than your average suburban family, we share many of the same distractions as other plugged-in households.
Studies confirm our love for all things media. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Americans between 8 and 18 consume media nearly eight hours a day, usually while multitasking (say, watching YouTube and tweeting). And the time families spend together has dropped from 26 hours a week to under 18, according to University of Southern California's Center for the Digital Future. Meanwhile, you can hardly open a newspaper or visit a news site without seeing reports of how technology is driving us apart and sapping our ability to contemplate anything longer than a status update. Worse, say some experts, digital natives like my kids—who brandish the Internet and cell phones the way a ninja warrior wields a samurai sword—have the most to lose. Apparently Generation Text spends so much time typing and tapping they may have difficulty understanding body language, resolving conflicts or feeling compassion for their real-life, flesh-and-blood companions.
Is it really as bad as all that? Yes and no. Let me explain.
Like many Americans, we are a modern Facebook family. For me, social networking sites are part of my job; they're also a fun way to keep up with friends, relatives and former colleagues, and to connect with the occasional random stranger. For my kids, though, like most teens and tweens Facebook is practically a vital organ. Their lives can't function without it.
Nearly three out of four teenagers rely on some kind of social network, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. They participate for the same reasons adults do—to share stories and pictures, exchange messages, play games and so on. But they also use it for what Microsoft Research senior researcher Danah Boyd calls "identity performance": trying on virtual personalities in front of their peers, hoping to carve a niche in a permanently connected world.
Online it's easier and socially less risky for introverted teens to be outgoing, or for awkward kids to exude an aura of cool.
I see identity performance happening with my shy, cerebral son. He'd happily spend all day hiding behind the veil of his far more streetwise online self if we let him. That's one reason we periodically remove all electronics from his life: so he's forced to interact with people in the three-dimensional world. On the other hand, my socially adept daughter is the polar opposite. For her, technology simply enhances her real-world relationships sometimes a little too much. When she's not actually with her friends she's invariably chatting with them or texting. (This has become our secret weapon; when we need her to do homework, clean her room or just stop giving us so much lip, we threaten to take away her precious cell phone. Works like magic every time.)
The danger comes when kids mistake identity performance for reality, social networks for a social life or 5,000 Facebook friends for being popular. Vanessa Van Petten, founder of the teen-driven advice site Radical Parenting, says one of the dangers of social networks is they encourage a reliance on "cotton candy friends," who melt away when you need them most.
Parents can prevent this by talking to their kids and making sure they maintain a balance between actual friends and the superficial relationships that exist mostly online, says Nicole Ellison, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies social media. Generally, most people do; in Ellison's surveys, students recognize that only one in four social network friendships are "actual friends."
That said, there are advantages to kids' social worlds being on display. Thanks largely to Facebook, I'm much more aware of what's happening in my kids' lives than I might otherwise be. If a strange adult were to suddenly reach out to my daughter by posting on her wall or commenting on a status update, for example, I would know about it right away. And my son's friends chat with me more often than he does.
But tread carefully, warns Van Petten, or you might overstep social networking boundaries and cause your kids to lock you out. "Parents know they should have the sex talk or the drug talk with kids," she says. "But they should also initiate the Facebook discussion. They need to ask if they're allowed to comment on their kids' pictures or chat with their friends. While many adults don't think of navigating community networks as serious, to teenagers it's a very real instance of social life and death."
When Talking Becomes Secondary
Another potential threat to communication is the fact that many modern teens would much rather text than talk, says MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Read How You Want). It's a trend she finds troubling. "People are losing important verbal communication skills," says Turkle. "If your child chooses to text you as a primary means of contact, that's a problem. It's unacceptable for your son to write back, 'I'm fine,' when you call his cell phone to check up. You need to hear your kids' voices or see them to know they're okay."
Texting and tweeting instead of talking not only leads to conversations filled with dramatic hyperbole, creative spelling and LOLs, it can also create a generation of conversational illiterates who struggle to read body language, resolve conflicts or deal with difficult emotions, warns Van Petten.
She remembers telephoning a close friend to share the sad news that her grandfather had just died. "There was a long silence," Van Petten says. "And then my friend said, 'That sucks.' Later she texted me: 'I'm so sorry, what can I do to help?' I realized she had no idea how to say this over the phone; she lacked the ability to verbally express the words I needed to hear."
In fact, technology might be damaging our capacity to feel real grief whether for an individual's passing or for other upsetting circumstances. A University of Michigan study found today's college students are 40% less empathetic than students 30 years ago, which researchers attribute at least partially to the rise of social media.
"You can't learn empathy by staring at a screen," notes educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions (Jossey-Bass). "Technology can rob us of face-to-face interactions. The best way parents can teach empathy is by modeling it in front of their kids."
Borba also suggests following the 3T Rule: no texting, tapping or talking (on a cell phone) during family time. That means adults too. Other advice: Always insist on eye contact when having discussions. Explain your feelings in detail so kids learn to interpret emotions. Finally, set firm limits on how much time everyone spends immersed in social media.
Still, being able to effectively share ideas online or via text is a useful skill—and one that will continue to be in demand as we move forward in an always-connected world, says Ellison. "You have to remember there's still a person on the other end of a text," she says. "It's just a different way of relating." So while teens do have to hone their real-life social abilities, parents must acknowledge that their kids will be entering a professional world where social media literacy is the key to success. And kids are more fluent in the language of emoticons and texting than we'll ever be.
Time to Unplug?
For my parents' generation, the enemies that were rotting our brains and transforming us into gibbering simpletons were telephones and television.
Today, it's iPhones and Facebook. But we all know that for every study that claims technology is shredding the social fabric, there's another that says tech tools enhance our ability to make and maintain connections.
This is definitely the case for our family. Thanks to high-speed Internet access, my wife and I were able to move 3,000 miles from our big-city jobs to a small town where we could spend more quality time with our kids and far fewer hours at the office. Technology is what allows my wife to work from home as a freelance writer (including as a tech columnist for Family Circle) while making sure our sixth grader puts down the cell phone long enough to finish her homework. And if on some days we text or Skype each other more than we talk, at least we are exchanging ideas—and generally staying on the same wavelength.
The fact is, tech both isolates and connects modern families. It can give the false illusion of friendship, but it also provides access to social circles far beyond the confines of our schools, churches, offices and neighborhoods.
As parents, we know there need to be limits. And it's up to us to enforce them. Which is why in a few weeks our family will hike to the top of a 6,600 foot peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. We'll be staying at a lodge where there is no cell phone reception, no Internet, not even electricity. For three days we'll have just trees, air, kerosene lamps and food brought up the mountain on the backs of llamas. It will be the longest we all have been unplugged since, well, possibly ever.
Will we survive? It's unclear. But if we do, we'll be sure to put it all on Facebook.
Four Ways to Keep Tech from Taking Over Family Life
- Play bad cop. It can be hard to set limits on tech use, especially with tweens and teens who are so savvy about it. But it's necessary: Kids who live in households where parents have established firm limits spend three fewer hours a day glued to a screen, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
- Designate technology-free zones. Create rooms where everyone has to check their cell phones and computers at the door (parents included), says Vanessa Van Petten of website Radical Parenting. Or institute times when no tech use is allowed, such as Sunday mornings, after 9 p.m. on school nights or during meals.
- Make your kids see eye-to-eye—literally. When kids are talking to someone, enforce the "eye-color rule," says author Michele Borba. They should be able to identify the eye color of the person with whom they are speaking. This will train them to stop looking at their phones and start focusing on the person in front of them.
- Do tech together. Take TVs out of kids' bedrooms and instead watch in the living room as a family (assuming you can all agree on a show). If your kids have a Facebook account, you should get one too—and ask them to accept you as a friend. Are they texting every waking hour of the day? Let them know you can text too, even if your thumbs aren't quite as nimble.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.