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It might finally be time for you to put your cellphone down.

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Giving Children Power over Technology

Helping reduce excessive technological usage.

During the summer, I seldom post articles. During that time, I am engulfed in summer camp, where my wife and I are directors of a residential camp. We serve children as young as 5 who often continue to attend camp through our high school leadership program. Many even return as counselors. 

As a result, we have some men and women who have been with us for 14, 15 or even 16 summers. We get the rare privilege of watching them grow developmentally and physically. But unlike parents who are apt to miss the subtle, incremental growth, we see the growth interspersed with 49-50 weeks of separation. As such, we have the chance to observe real developmental patterns. 

These experiences provide some insight into parenting and children. 

One such insight regards the omnipresence of technology in the lives of children. I have written several blogs about the importance of separating from “the electronic umbilical cord” ( for example, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smores-and-more/201111/siren-...), but these usually discuss the fact that camp is a great place to be tech-free. 

Many parents ask a variation of this question: “I love the fact that my child goes to camp for 3 weeks without a phone, video game or an Internet connection, but what can I do upon his/her return? Camp is designed to be devoid of technology, but these devices are ubiquitous in the outside world. If I want to reduce the interaction at home, what can I do?” 

This is a truly difficult question. But I believe it is one with a very good answer. 

Technology is attractive and intertwined in our culture: children share YouTube videos, connect with Facebook and communicate through texts. Children in general, and teens in particular, fear any type of social isolation, so they feel compelled to be part of these media. 

I choose the word “compelled” intentionally. In my conversations with teens, I hear weariness when they speak of their tech habits. They would rather text less and reduce their Facebook time; but they feel a need to “keep up” and “fit in”. 

This fact is one of the reasons that it is difficult to persuade children to limit their technology time. 

Also, they simply do not like parents exercising control over them. Parental rulings, especially unpleasant ones, create reflexive negative reactions. Young people want control over their lives. They understand that they will someday be adults and need to navigate the world on their own. The older they get, the more they crave independence and self-reliance. 

So, they push back against arbitrary parental rules. But this desire for control and independence can be an ally when discussing technology. I explain to our campers that often teens are controlled by their phones/computers and not the other way around. I ask them simple questions:

  • Do you feel a compulsion to answer every texts immediately?
  • Do you check Facebook more than 5 times a day?
  • Can you stop a video game in the middle of a challenging level? 

If they answer “no”, I suggest that they lack control. 

They do not like this. It is threatening. They do not want to be slaves to their devices any more than they want to be slaves to parental rules or desires. 

In short, change the conversation from “I want you to stop using [your phone, your game system, your computer] so much” to “I want you to have control that your friends do not have” or “I want you to own your phone/computer, and not the other way around.” 

Once they begin to see their technological habits as evidence of control, I also share the benefits of gaining that control using the following logic:

  • The average American teen spends 53 hours per week interacting with electronic screens. This same teen will send and receive 3700 texts a month, spending over 90 minutes a day doing so.
  • This electronic time is a direct substitute for face-to-face time.
  • All real successes happen at the face-to-face level: friendships, marriages, partnerships, working relationships. Our most joyous and meaningful moments come in the presence of other people. Strong interpersonal skills increase the likelihood of success and happiness. [Note: the Partnership for 21st Century Skills – p21.org – has documented much of this well.]
  • We get better at interpersonal interactions the same way we get better at everything – practice. The more time you spend face-to-face with other people, the better you get at it. You learn to refine your body language, humor, vocal intonation, eye contact, posture, etc. This refinement happens naturally – your subconscious notes what works and what does not - retaining the former and discarding the latter. 

In short, the screen time not only reduces your control, but also your effectiveness and chance for future success. 

I have campers in high school who adopt “no-text Tuesday” and eschew Facebook on weekends. They set time limits for themselves before they sit down at a video game or TV set – when the alarm rings, they go outside or meet a friend somewhere. When I ask them about their friends’ reactions, their responses are pretty consistent. The friends initially act as if they are ‘freaks’, but are intrigued by (and respect) their rationale. After all, if you are a teen with control, that is admirable.

Just Disconnect