The Big Disconnect: Parents' Digital Dilemma

Technology’s insidious way of taking over your family.

Posted Aug 13, 2013

When I tried to explain the risks of too much screen time for young children, my friend balked. In fact, she hardly heard me. She wanted to tell me how adept her grandchildren, ages three and almost five, were at sliding their fingers across an iPad. She became defensive, explaining that her son and daughter-in-law limit the children’s time on devices.

She and others have argued that digital is the way of the world now—and that’s true. However, aspects of the device-era are increasingly worrisome. The majority of parents don’t seem to be paying attention to how technology is taking over family life.

Are you feeding into your family’s digital addiction without realizing it? 

Parents Set the Stage

A national survey of more than 2,300 parents of children ages 0 to 8, “Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology,conducted by the Development School of Communication at Northwestern University, found that children’s media use followed their parents’ lead: “Parents’ media behavior appears to be a key driver in determining their family’s orientation toward screen media. If they themselves are media enthusiasts, there is a pattern of substantial screen media use in the home, with TVs on in the background and in children’s bedrooms and used frequently as a parenting tool and family activity.” For example, when parents were heavy “users,” spending 11 hours on their devices, their young offspring clocked 4.5 hours per day. On the other hand, parents who were light users, spending 2 hours absorbed by media, their children spent only 1.5 hours per day.

Of the under age 8 set, more than half of parents reported that they are “not worried at all” or “not too worried” about their children’s use of media, which included television, mobile devices like iPads, and computers. However, these same parents were concerned about future time spent on “screens” as their children got older: “Parents do look ahead and worry about what the future holds when it comes to their children’s social skills and possible “addiction” to mobile media.”

Their unease for the future is well founded, but according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, they should also be concerned when their children are very young. She explains why human interaction and strong family connection are essential for healthy development. She believes, “Children need to feel safe and secure, and the first and most powerful experience of that is in relationship to us [parents]. They ‘learn us,’ reading our reliability and approachability through the years in the way we are with them. This includes our tech habits, since so many young children consider screens competition for their parents’ attention and, as they grow older, our tech habits establish a baseline norm for them.”

TV and digital devices suck in children at younger and younger ages. Steiner-Adair, who addresses technology individually for all age groups with compelling anecdotes, explains how critical the three dimensional experience is for early learning. Technology, like the iPad or other screen devices, doesn’t allow for language development or for expanding a child’s ability to talk to friends, to make up imaginary scenes, or to meet new challenges—the very experiences so crucial to a child’s development.

Could your preschooler download an app before she could tie her shoes? Steiner-Adair says, “Some can.” That’s a little scary, don’t you think? The author hopes parents will recognize that these early years are magical for children, and asks parents, “Will you make it the magic of the playground or the magic of the iPad?”

“The iPads are Coming”

In a New York Times Magazine section article, "My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, and It’s All My Fault," originally titled, “The iPads are Coming,” Steve Almond wrote: “I attended my daughter Josie’s kindergarten open house, the highlight of which was a video slide show featuring our moppets using iPads to practice their penmanship. Parental cooing ensured.” (Already, the parents in that scene sound just like my friend so proud of her grandchildren’s skills.) Next year, Almond’s daughter, like all her classmates, will receive his or her own personal iPad. One of his main concerns is “that iPads might transform the classroom from a social environment into an educational subway car, each student fixated on his or her own personalized educational gadget.”

iPads and computers offer access to an entire world of knowledge. No argument there. And, so many parents believe that their children need to be technologically adept or they will fall short in terms of skills and information. Steiner-Adair agrees, but rightfully worries that the emotional connection to family can be lost when everyone is glued to their own devices.

She points out, “When family members ‘fly solo’ too much and spend too much time pursuing their singular lives online with their out-of-family social networks, family cohesion erodes. Family ties loosen. Today’s family must develop a relationship with technology without losing sight of the primacy of family relationships, because it is in protecting and cultivating these relationships that we make a family sustainable.”

Seduced by Devices

Beyond setting a good example and limiting parental time and obsession with smart phones and the like, I tried to tell my friend that time on digital devices is easy to limit with a three- or five-year-old to prevent developmental losses, but it is the pattern of use that will ultimately rule the day as the years go by.

When Steiner-Adair relates absorbing stories of teens’ use of texting and Facebook in eye-opening detail, she concludes that “Good kids are getting into bad trouble…how we talk to our kids and help them and the family make meaning…makes all the difference in the world.” 

Finding time to talk to children and “be” with them diminishes when parents and children are seduced by and submerged in technology. The Environmental Health Trust looks internationally: “Reporting that one in five students are addicted to their smartphones, South Korea, the world’s most tech savvy nation, is aggressively tackling the problem, establishing more than 100 Internet addiction camps.” Is this where our children are headed in the US and elsewhere?  

After reading The Big Disconnect, you will look at screen time from an entirely new perspective and understand how technology, once merely a helpful tool, now plays a dominant--and for many, a consuming--role as “as the hub and hearth of family.” Steiner-Adair gives you the insights and guidelines to avoid that fate and turn technology into your ally.

Related: Are Screens “Drugging” Your Child’s Brain?How Digital Devices Affect Infants and ToddlersImpact of Media: Are We Over-Stimulating Young Children


Almond, Steve. "My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, and It’s All My Fault." Editorial. Sunday Magazine 23 June 2013: MM44. The New York Times, 21 June 2013. Web.

Davis, Devra. “Beware of the Digital Zombies: Protecting young people from a catatonic fate.” Environmental Health Trust: 29 July 2013.

Steiner-Adair, Catherine, and Teresa Barker. The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York: Harper, 2013.

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman