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How to Avoid Losing Your Kids to Their Electronic Devices

John Burger - published on 06/10/16

Parents are "immigrants" to a place where their kids are "digital natives," says psychologist Deborah MacNamara

Deborah MacNamara’s 14-year-old niece was beside herself. She was totally lost. What was the problem? She had her cell phone with her, but she was stuck in a place with no signal.

For Four Days.

MacNamara, author of Rest, Play, Growand a psychologist in Vancouver, Canada, told the story of her niece during a UN forum on parenting June 1, part of celebrations of Global Parents Day. The mother of two, on a panel with Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s representative at the UN, and others, spoke about rearing children in a digital age.

She said that her niece had become “very peer-attached, and her phone became the tool with which she held on to her people. She no longer held on to us as her aunties and uncles and grandparents.”

According to MacNamara and others at the symposium, this should sound very familiar to many readers.

So the family decided to take her on a camping trip, but unknown to her, there was no mobile coverage at the campground. She was bored having to spend time with her relatives, with no electronic way out.

“By the third day, I stumbled upon her having a conversation with my sister,” MacNamara said. “She was actually crying in despair. My sister said to me, ‘It’s good that you came. My daughter has been telling me about how she feels so lost and upset and depressed of late. It’s tough being a teenager today. And I said, ‘Yes, I remember that well.’”

MacNamara sat down next to her niece and put her arm around her.

“Do you know the number one rule when you’re lost and confused?” she asked the girl. “Are your friends lost and confused?… Who is not lost and confused about who you are?”

“And she looked at me, as if she saw me again for the first time, and she said, ‘You.’ And I said, ‘And who else isn’t lost and confused about you?’ And she looked around and she saw her mother, again for the first time.”

The story drove home MacNamara’s point that in an age when parents seem to be losing their kids’ attention to their electronic devices, relationships are supreme.

MacNamara was first tipped off to a potential problem about new technologies several years ago when she was putting her eight-year-old daughter to bed. She had given her an iPad a couple of weeks earlier and could tell that it was “love at first sight” on the  girl’s part.

“When I was putting her to bed one night she said to me, ‘Oh Mommy, your hugs are better than technology time.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, it’s great that I’m ahead, but how is it that my seven- or eight-year relationship with my daughter had become comparable to an iPad she had known for two weeks?'”

For sure, MacNamara is not the only one to notice that young people seem to be inordinately attached to their “devices.” Her talk was complemented by another one at the symposium, delivered by Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and author, who reported that on average, children spend eight hours a day on some type of screen—and 34 minutes with parents.

“What keeps kids away from all the bad stuff, the sex, the drugs and alcohol?” Meeker said. “Researchers have found that it isn’t peers or school programs or getting them involved in more after-school activities. It’s something called parent connectedness.”

MacNamara said that the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California has found that with the onset of the “digital revolution” family time has decreased by over a third. Gordon Neufeld, founder of the Neufeld Institute, where MacNamara is a faculty member, has conducted research finding that children are “becoming more peer-attached than ever, and using their tools of technology to hold on to each other,” she said.

“We need to put devices in their hands when they are ready and mature, when they have the impulse  control, the identities that are fully formed, to handle all that will come with their devices,” she said.

MacNamara offered five strategies that parents can adopt that will help them maintain healthy relationships with their kids as society continues to figure out the best way to use—and not be used by—technology:

  • We need to believe we are what our children need. We are our children’s best bet.
  • Invite dependency. What is it that we can do that’s irreplaceable? How do we create personalized relationships?
  • Create rituals and rules to safeguard healthy attachment, to preserve our attachments with our children.
  • Make it easy for them to attach fully and deeply to us. Get in their face in a friendly way, say hello, collect their eyes, so they can see there’s warmth and light and enjoyment behind ours, and a desire to connect with them.
  • Take the lead in using technology appropriately. Show our kids what the new norms and new rules must be around our devices.
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