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Family Relationships in the Digital Age – Catherine Steiner Adair

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist in private practice who is also a research associate in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and affiliated with Mclean Hospital, has written The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age  which examines the ways in which technology and media change how children learn and grow,
and shows parents how to balance the benefits of tech while reducing the potential risks they pose. She identifies ways to strengthen children’s social and emotional development to help them grow to be responsible, resilient, confident, and capable young adults.  She spoke with Stew Friedman about her current work which focuses on the impact of technology on the boundaries between work and the rest of life.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stewart Friedman: What prompted you to write The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age?

Catherine Steiner-Adair: Catherine Steiner AdairThe first thing that prompted me was my own struggles as a mom. My 30-year-old son was a very quick adopter to gaming and I didn’t know what to do or how to handle it. I had to set appropriate limits.  He ended up going to business school and he works in the technology industry.   He had a couple years in Wall Street and didn’t like that. He was able to combine his love of finance and technology, but it was rough going when he was gaming.

SF: What was rough about it?

CSA: I’m trained as a developmental psychologist.   And this was a long time ago when games were real games you could beat.  He was beating these games and I felt like it was so stimulating for him and really creative and clearly he was into this with real intellectual gusto.   But I also felt like something was going on between his brain and the computer that was very unlike anything I had seen but there was no research then.

SF: You were worried about that?

CSA: I was absolutely worried about it. This is a kid who would come to dinner politely, except when I said, “Stop playing.  Get off your computer.”  Then he was much angrier and it took him a while just to transition into being present at the dinner table.   For a great conversationalist, it was very noticeable. Now there’s tons of research, and the thing that’s really hard is to listen to the research because we’ve all fallen in love with tech, our lives now revolve around it, and it’s very hard to push the pause button and reboot. The other thing was I was really curious to interview kids about what it’s like to be a child growing up in the digital age. What’s it like for a four-year-old, a 14-year-old, or a 24-year-old with a parent who has a laptop and iPad? I was very lucky, I was able to go to 30 schools around the country and interview 1,250 kids.

SF: What did you discover?

CSA: The thing that really blew me away was how frustrated and exhausted kids of all ages are trying to get their parents’ attention. It was really sad to hear children using the same adjectives —angry, sad, madly, lonely, frustrated — at every age. We’ve got to outsmart our smartphones.   The work-family boundary is gone with technology. As wonderful as technology is, and it is here to stay, it makes it really hard to know when you can disconnect from work and when are the moments to be totally present to your family.

SF: I would say that it’s not that the boundary is gone, it’s just that now has to be managed intelligently, consciously,  and deliberately given the fact that we’ve got our work with us all the time.

CSA: Well, that’s what I mean. You could, ostensibly, now be at work 24/7. It used to be that you come home from work, and now work travels in your back pocket with you wherever you go.

SF: Yes, and we’re just learning as a species how to manage this new technology. Tell us more about what you discovered. I thought you were going to say that what you discovered was that kids themselves were having trouble with their ability to pay attention.

CSA: The book is full of stories about that, and I expected to find that.  But it’s very rare to listen to kids at four and 14 and 24, when asked a question, all go to the same answer. They all had the same thing to say for every problem, and that’s what shocked me.

SF: The 24-year-olds were saying, “I can’t get my mother’s attention because she’s on her smartphone?”

CSA: You bet, and they had the same examples. For instance, six- and seven-year-olds would say things like, “I hate it when my mom says ‘Can’t wait to see you after school, honey. I’ll be first in line at pickup,’ and then I get in the car and she’s talking to grandma.” And then the 24-year-old or 26-year-old would say, “It’s so annoying, it makes me so mad, and it actually feels really hurtful when my parents are so excited to pick me up and they meet me and they say they’ll be behind TSA and we get in the car and they ask me something really important like ‘Which job are you going to take?’  or ‘Did you really break up with your girlfriend?’ and three seconds in, they were taking a call to make a golf game or dinner reservations.” We ask them a serious question, and then we say, “Oops, just wait a sec.”

SF: The message conveyed is that there’s something more important in my life than you.

CSA: That’s right, and that’s what kids are really struggling with.   That’s a message I got from my parents, and that’s fine. It’s about how often they get it. Since smartphones have come out we’ve created a new cultural norm. When you step back and reflect on it, it’s pretty staggering; the norm is that it is okay to be in a conversation with your husband, your wife, your partner, your kids, and at the sound of a ping or a little vibration of your phone you ask them to freeze in time and you turn your attention elsewhere. You don’t even know who it is that’s calling, but whatever it is, the message is that this matters more, this is more important, I’m leaving you in the moment.

SF: But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it?

CSA: No, of course it doesn’t have to be that way. We have to be a lot more thoughtful. Right now we’re sort of at the whim of phones.

SF: So how do you help people to detach in a way that allows them to pay attention to the people who matter when they need to be attended to?

CSA: When it comes to kids, I think there are certain times in the day that it’s really important to be tech-free.  You need to have it in your head that you’re not going to even take out your phone, it’s just an off-time.  Get up a half-hour earlier than your kids so you do all your email and then know for the next 45 minutes, you’re off-line because it’s a frantic time getting out the door and kids need nice parents, not cranky parents to get annoyed because the parents are texting. And then, in the car on the way to school, especially for little children, playing Candy Crush makes the ride easy but it’s not what they need psychologically or neurologically.   And kids of all ages hate hearing their parents talk on Bluetooth. Another time that’s really important is when you come home from work. Stand in the rain, stand in the snow, but do not walk in your house in a conversation because you’re not coming home from work, you’re bringing work home.

SF: And everybody knows that.

CSA: They do, and kids of all ages, six and 16 say, “I never run and hug my father when he walks in the door anymore because all I’m going to get is ‘Hold on, honey. This is really important; I really want to see you in just one sec.’” Technology has really changed how we think about time and how we think about what’s important.  Many adults have this new habit of mind that they walk in the door, they say a quick “Hi” to everybody, and the next thing they say is, “I’m just going to go check my email,” and then they’re gone for 25 minutes, two hours, they’re checking out.  So one of the things I would suggest you ask yourself is: Is there any reason, is there anything absolutely urgent that means you cannot come home, walk in the door, and have whatever it is, 45 minutes, an hour-and-a-half, where you are completely offline. I also interviewed 500 teachers and 500 parents.

SF: So you spoke to teachers in your research?

CSA: Teachers had very similar things to say. I’ve actually just come back from six weeks on the road, and teachers everywhere say the same things .They’re seeing kids can’t self-regulate as well.

SF: What does that mean? Can you translate that?

CSA: They can’t calm themselves down.

SF: You mean they need their devices?

CSA: They need their devices. They’re jittery, they’re twitchy, they’re so used to the fast pace, instant gratification, the automatic start, the device gets you to the next level. You think about the difference between playing dress-up in real life and playing dress-up on an iPad, the iPad has nothing to offer a child. Dress-up is a great thing to play for coordination if you are a little person walking around in big boots and stuff, and it’s great for your imagination. You’re making up a story, and you have your own internal vision of what a warrior or a princess or whatever it is you are, instead of abiding by these gender stereotypes. Most of all, the biggest thing that they see kids giving up on so quickly is their own imagination. It’s called the capacity for deep play. When you’re playing and you come to a quiet spot and you realize hey, I have a new idea. When kids play computer games all the time, the computer spits out one idea after another, and not that it’s not creative sometimes, some things kids do on computers are amazing, but when you do it a lot, and it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, junk or great stuff, the pace of it, the stimulation of it, because it’s a neurological stimulant to the brain, for some children starts to make play in real life seem slow and boring and like more work. That’s something we have to be careful about.

SF: Roger, calling from British Columbia. Roger, welcome to Work and Life.

Roger: Mr. Friedman, you made the comment that we’re the first generation to have 24-hour work, and I wanted to interject into the argument that farmers have had 24-hour work in their life, forever, and so have hunters and other people who make their living off the land, and they haven’t had any problem separating their kids from their life and vice versa.

SF: I would say, Roger, that it’s a great point, but for farmers, when the sun goes down or when the seasons change, there are times for rest and there are times for reaping, times for sowing, that are conditioned by the natural order of things, by the natural world. With digital devices, there are no such cycles of the sun that can tell us when to rest and when to work, so it is a little different. It’s true that we’re not the first generation to be working around the clock, but it’s a different order of things when the sun doesn’t matter anymore and you can be connected all the time, any time.

Catherine, you mentioned that teachers are seeing a reduced capacity for imagination, the need for that twitchy hit to give students something to keep them attending.

CSA: When you play computer games, every time you do something, you match lowercase ‘a’ to uppercase ‘A’, there are butterflies, there are sparkles, there are little tweety birds who sing to you, and that in-and-of-itself is a reinforcement and it’s a stimulant so kids start to expect teachers to say “great job all the time. The other thing is kids interrupt more. They can’t stay calm. That’s what self-regulation is all about.

SF: What does this portend for our future?

CSA: I think one of the things that’s really tricky is we’ve fallen in love with the great aspects of technology.  We’ve got schools heavily invested in iPads and you’re sending middle-schoolers and high-schoolers home with homework on an iPad but they’re not just doing their homework on the iPad, they’re doing two or three different things and they’re not developing the same capacity for focus and attention and deep thinking, and that’s a challenge everybody’s grappling with, everywhere.

SF: What more can parents do? You talked about the importance of turning it off, being conscious, thinking about if you really need to take this call and what’s the cost to you, to your family life, to your future family relationships. These are things that anybody can do.

CSA: I think every house can have an understanding that in the family room, for example, no one’s got a screen of any kind. How about designating it like a smoking room;  have a designated space for people who are on their devices, but make sure you have a screen-free place because what typically happens is you’re all hanging out in the living room and suddenly one person takes out their phone and instantly — it’s contagious — everybody else follows suit.

SF: What do you do when, people are addicted now? You’re talking about cold turkey?

CSA: Well, it depends. We use the word addicted here with lowercase ‘a’. They use the word in Asia with capital ‘A’ because they have over 300 treatment programs for 5-to-18-year-olds who are what they have medically diagnosed as addicted to technology. We don’t have that medical classification yet.

SF: Are you sure? I thought the DSM 5 had it.

CSA: It’s considering it for gaming. But in Asia they have technology addiction. They have different ways of talking about and their approach to treatment is very harsh. If you want to see, it was very moving to me, watch Web Junkie.

SF: What happens there?

CSA: At this particular treatment center in China, the way they work with teenagers who are clearly addicted to technology is they put them in solitary confinement. We hardly put anybody in solitary confinement for any kind of mental disorder in America. What we do here, and more and more programs are popping up, is that we send kids and adults into the wilderness on programs like Outward Bound for extended amounts of time.  Nature’s a beautiful place for families to go on vacation, or to make sure on the weekend you all have time off of technology, or to make sure every day your kids’ brains have a rest from technology. You have basically until eighth grade to teach your kids how not to have their devices in their bedroom when they fall asleep. This is a critical issue that kids learn not to depend psychologically on having a computer and smartphone in their bedroom when they sleep because they don’t sleep as well and therefore they don’t learn as much because sleep is so important for health and learning. There are all sorts of habits we want to reconsider, and parents can do a lot both for themselves (and it’s not good for couples to have iPads in beds. It’s not good to read that way, and people often feel ignored) and for their children.

SF:  That’s also true with reading books in bed, no?

CSA: Yes, but your brain doesn’t interact with a book nearly the same way as the light of a screen from a computer which disrupts your brain’s ability to produce melatonin. It’s much easier to fall asleep reading a book or even watching TV than it is to fall asleep on a computer.

SF: Why is that? Why is TV better than a computer?

CSA: It has to do with the intensity of the light, with the way your brain interacts.

SF: I imagine many parents would face all kinds of resistance to enacting some of the suggestions that you have offered. How do you manage the process of change?

CSA: It’s very hard, and this is something I had to go through with my own kids. I talk in the book about having a family responsibly use disagreement, and it’s something you revisit all the time. I think the best thing to do is really sit down with the adults, whoever they are in your household, and really try to think about whether we are creating the family life we want? Do we have a quality of conversations we want? Are we playing enough together as a family? You want to make sure you have fun together as a family. Kids love it when their parents play with them. That was another thing, four-year-olds and 18-year-olds say, “My daddy’s smartphone is a stupid phone because he said he was going to read to me and he didn’t,” and the 18-year-old version of that is, “I love my dad. He works so hard and I’m so proud of him. He has this amazing job and we get to go on these amazing vacations, but I hate it and it makes me so angry and so hurt when I have to say ‘Dad, do you really have to text on the ski lift? Is there any time family comes first?’” Our kids grow quickly, and you really have to protect those moments, and those cumulative moments and experiences that create the foundation of a family.

SF: Absolutely, and protection is such a great word for that because there is this kind of incursion that modern life is making on our intimate lives through these devices, wonderful and powerful and incredibly liberating as they are, but we’ve got to rein them in.

CSA: We do, and we can. There’s nothing here that we can’t do. Is it good to text your kid to come to dinner? No, it’s not. Go knock on their door, and even if they bark at you, you know what’s going on for them in that moment, and kids really like it when we make the personal effort to go get them. On the other hand, teenagers will text their parents things they’re afraid to say face to face. That’s a wonderful thing; anything that helps a child tell a parent something that they’re scared about is a beautiful thing. There are times to use these wonderful tools and there are times not to, and it’s really a matter of being more thoughtful about it.

SF: I ask the students in my Total Leadership class to think about the key people in their lives and how they communicate with them — through what media? They learn to become more thoughtful about, “I’m spending a lot of time texting with this person, face-to-face with that person. Maybe I should switch it up and use different forms of communication with different people.” I also ask them to detox, to take six hours sometime this week and shut down and then reflect on what happens. Of course, what they discover is that flowers are beautiful.

CSA: So true, and that should be part of a way of life, a “Tech Shabbat”. We can all think about whether we give ourselves 24 hours? Six hours is great, but try for more.

SF: I’m going for something that’s doable for an MBA student!  What’s the last thing that you want to leave our listeners with?

CSA: For the next couple days, email or text everybody in your family and try and get a group conversation about how you’re going to handle Thanksgiving and digital media. It’s a really hard thing because families have different rules for their children, people have different expectations. The goal is to try and come up with an agreement before you arrive at your destination, and it will make things much better. If you can’t get an agreement, try and respect differences.

About the Author

Jacob Adler , W’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.

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