Our Children or Our Smartphones?

The impact of technology on family relations

Posted Jan 08, 2013

This week I witnessed two scenes that made me think about the place of technology in family, its dangers and benefits. The first scene was a father and daughter (about 13), enjoying a lunch date. A date, and yet the father spent the entire meal on his SmartPhone, making phone calls and playing games. The little girl, who did not have a SmartPhone, appeared sullen, her eyes empty with a tinge of anger. In between game rounds and conversations, when the father did address his daughter, she made no eye contact and barely spoke. The scene broke my heart.

It is not just we parents who have lost our children to technology; our children have lost their parents as well. I wonder, are we raising a generation of orphans, children whose caretakers have disappeared into a little black box?

Love is attention. Attention is love. Children feel loved when we spend time with them—gift them with our presence. We need to start paying attention to the messages that we are sending our children when we perpetually stare into our screens and not into their eyes. Of course we cannot converse with our children every moment, and children need down time to just space out (as do we adults). Nonetheless, when we spend our time continually interacting with technology in the company of our children, we are expressing some very destructive themes. First, we are saying, I am more interested in what’s going on in this game than I am with you. Second, we are saying that playing games, texting and the rest of it is a valuable way to spend our short time on this planet. And third (and most dangerous), when we choose our devices over our children (which is how a young mind understands mommy or daddy always on technology) we are saying that you, my child, are not that important. You are not worthy of my attention. This is the message from which there is no turning back. Once experienced by the child, we will never again have a relationship with our child that is free from this hurt. Once conveyed, we never get back a fresh slate from which to build their self-esteem.

Children end up obsessively playing their own games later, not only because they have been taught that this is a valuable way to spend their time, but sometimes, because they don’t trust that anyone would want to pay attention to them in that same way.

In another scene, it was a family of four, two teenagers, a boy and a girl, and their parents. The brother and sister were actually talking with each other for the first part of the meal, a sight that struck me as refreshingly odd these days. Each of the family members had a device displayed on the table, not too far from reach (just in case) but they were all unattended.

I was close enough to be privy to every word that they were saying, and not saying, every snide gesture and under-the- breath muttering. The parents were not nice to each other, it was clear that at that moment, neither was fond of the other. Every so often the mother or father would throw a question out to one of the children, but mostly as a means for deliberately ignoring their spouse. The question to the child was not a curiosity but rather, a form of passive aggression toward the partner. The children were obviously hip to this emotional tactic, being used as objects to express their parents’ rage, and wisely, rarely responded.

Then suddenly a topic came up that brought the parents to real anger. Unkind words were exchanged and nasty arguing ensued. Immediately, as if on cue, both children picked up their Smartphones and started playing. They spent the second half of the meal staring into their screens, no longer speaking to each other or their parents. All I could think was, wow, children are smart. They know where they want to be and where they don’t. Clearly it was not safe to language what they were feeling, if they were even old enough to be conscious of it, but they knew where they did not want to be, and what they did not want to experience.

I watched as the Smartphone became an adaptive device, a mode of protection from the pain of family. I witnessed these wise children use their technology to remove them from the family dysfunction and take control in a situation in which they probably felt helpless. My heart broke for the wisdom of youth.

Like everything, humans included, technology resolves itself in contradiction. And yet, we must be mindful of what we are doing with technology when in the company of our children. Our emotional presence is the greatest gift we can offer our children. Our presence, our attention: this is love. When we are staring into a device, we are not present, and not loving. Children are not yet able to realize that it is we, the parents, who are at fault, but rather interpret this experience as their own failing. What they understand is that they are not worthy of our love, not important enough for us to want to pay attention. And indeed, we are teaching our children that we would rather be texting or playing with angry birds, than be with them.

As parents, we are awarded the profound power to show our children that they are loved, to teach them that they are valuable and important as human beings. Indeed, this is our task as parents. BEING there and paying attention—even in the silence—is how it happens. Let us be ever mindful and respectful therefore with our own presence, for it is no other than love, and without it there is no love.