Family Tech :) and :(

Phones, computers and games can spark a big disconnect. But they also can help us share experiences.

For the McCain family of Orlando, the annual family vacation was a much-anticipated ritual of shared experiences, mementos and scrapbooks. The 2013 trip was going to be a real doozy: hiking and rafting in the Grand Canyon. After all, this would be the last family vacation for a while because daughter Kelly would be heading off to college.

Instead of a doozy, the trip turned into a disaster as far as Joan McCain is concerned.

“The entire trip revolved around my son being able to charge his phone so he could constantly text and instant-message and FaceTime with his girlfriend,” McCain recalls with humor-tinged exasperation. “We’re driving through the Painted Desert and he’s face to phone, and I’m like, ‘Would you look at the natural beauty around you?’ It was completely and totally wasted on him.”

McCain, an advertising and public relations instructor at the University of Central Florida, says that letting their children have cellphones starting in middle school was “the worst decision” she, her husband and the parents in their peer group made.

“At the time my children came of age, the standard was middle school. It became this societal norm that suddenly in middle school, if your kid doesn’t have a cellphone, you’re the horrible parents who are depriving them of this rite of passage.”

McCain and her husband use cellphones, of course, but not in front of the kids or each other. For her kids, though, “that phone is a constant distraction,” she says. “I feel it isolates them.”

For some families, this digital disconnect is a feature of daily life that extends beyond smartphones to include laptops, tablets, Xboxes and earbuds. Although most families set designated times and places for technology use, finding time to connect with one another on a personal level is a challenge as youngsters turn into teens.


“I’ve seen families where technology has created less connection and less sharing, and communication decreases,” says Carla Bresnahan, a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando. “It’s usually one of two extremes. Either there’s a problem now with a child getting poor grades, not doing homework or having some type of behavior issue, or I see families who like to catch things before they happen. They might say, ‘We’re not talking as much. My child is more withdrawn. I’m trying to get them to put the phone down and they’re fighting me on that.’”

Technology has become as much a part of the American way of life as apple pie and ice cream, with 90 percent of adults and 78 percent of teens owning a cellphone, according to the Pew Internet Research Project. Other insights from Pew’s 2014 research:

  • 58 percent of adults have a smartphone.
  • 47 percent of teens now have a smartphone, up from just 23 percent in 2011.
  • 42 percent of adults own a tablet computer.
  • One in four teens (23 percent) has a tablet.

Our digital lifestyle is so ingrained, Bresnahan says, that sometimes parents don’t realize the role they’re playing in the family’s communication dynamics.

“I always talk to them about what they’re modeling,” she says. “All of us can be guilty of checking our email and watching TV on our phones. The first thing we have to do is model” the behavior we want to see, she says.

Technology can also be a great tool for bringing families together, Bresnahan says.

“I work with families in the military, and Skype is wonderful for families whose parents are overseas, in Afghanistan or Iraq,” she says. “They can take the laptop to the kids’ baseball game, so parents on active duty can see their child’s baseball game.”

Research on cellphone use has shown mostly positive effects from texting, says Dr. Harry Weger, associate professor of communications at the University of Central Florida. “The frequency with which parents text with their kids has been found to create a greater sense of family cohesion and closeness and increases parents’ ability to monitor their children’s whereabouts. Parental monitoring has been found to be a very big factor in reducing early alcohol and drug use in adolescents.”

Whether technology serves as a connector or a divider comes down to how it’s used, says Dr. Neil Boris, chief of behavioral health at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando.

“What makes connections in families are shared moments,” he says. “If those moments are shared along with or through a device, I’m OK with that.”

His job requires some travel, Boris says, and he’s grateful that technology allows him to see his three small children each night that he’s on the road.

“I love to FaceTime my kids and say goodnight to them when I’m away. How wonderful is it that we have that connection? I think where people get concerned is that the devices can distract from shared moments.”

When that starts happening, it’s time to establish rules.“Parents should never be afraid of setting limits,” Boris says. “Teenagers do use these devices in wonderful ways, to keep in touch and connect with friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with doing that past one’s reasonable bedtime. Parents should feel very comfortable saying ‘When it’s bedtime, it’s “no electronics” time’ and, if need be, removing the offending device. I certainly counsel that in my office on a frequent basis.”

Tina McConnell and her husband have set limits on their kids’ use of technology, including a ban on texting during family meals and an 8 p.m. curfew for computer use.

“I think it gets more challenging to maintain a balance, but I can’t vilify the technology either,” says the Orlando nurse. “We use it to stay in touch with our son in college in Colorado and friends all over the world.”

Three of her four kids received cellphones when they turned 12, but not smartphones. “It’s primarily for us to keep in touch with them,” she says, adding that she hopes plain old cellphones are still available when her youngest turns 12.

Despite her kids’ attachment to their smartphones, McCain is pragmatic about life in the digital world. She and her husband have blocked risky websites; they monitor their kids’ social media posts; and have had “the talk” about the dangers of Internet stalkers and bullies. 

“Unless you want to go live off the grid in Alaska,’’ she says, “this is just life in America today.” x

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