Screen quandary: Family life in the technology age

| Jessica Weinberger | August 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

Nothing has reshaped 21st century culture more than technology and devices. Statistics point to the pervasive impact: More than 17 billion connected devices in the world. An average 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or interacting with media. More than 2 billion active Facebook users. We’re taking in five times more information daily than 50 years ago.

Deemed crucial tools to thriving in the digital age by expanding our knowledge and networks, smartphones also offer unprecedented access to pornography and can facilitate cyberbullying and human trafficking. As researchers race to track the consequences of screen time on the brain and body, we’re also left wondering about the impact on children and the family.

Screen time troubles many, including Judy Stoffel. The seasoned Chanhassen certified public accountant and business professional added “author” to her resume when she published her first book, “#LookUp: A Parenting Guide to Screen Use,” in March. As a parent of five millennial and Generation Z children, Stoffel saw how technology use drastically changed between her older and younger kids. Now ages 16 to 29, they represent a massive shift that’s playing out in families around the nation.

“We’re raising the first generation of children who will prefer texting over talking—there is no rule book for this,” said Stoffel, a parishioner at St. Hubert in Chanhassen. “We are all part of the biggest uncontrolled experiment known to man.”

And the stakes are high. Before age 5, when many children discover tablets and streaming channels, their brain develops more than any other phase. On average, children receive their first smartphone at age 10, before they reach another critical development window in the teenage years.

Gazing at a screen and jumping at the sound of pings, alarms and other notifications is fundamentally changing our make-up. It’s rewiring our brains and affecting our mental health, Stoffel said, referring to the concept of “plasticity” where deep-rooted canals in the brain are formed by experiences.

“The more kids are constantly swiping, playing video games, streaming movies and the less they’re outside with nature, playing with other kids and using their imagination, it’s forming all of these canals in their brains at such a critical time,” she explained.

That makes habits even more challenging to break. Much like gambling, swipes, likes, friend requests and emojis draw us in with the potential to “win.” The intermittent variable reward triggers a dopamine surge that provides a rush and supports long-term addiction, much like cigarette or drug use.

Plugged in family life

Like Stoffel, Chaska mom Jenny Richelsen had a front seat view of the technology wave with five children ages 27 down to 14.

“It’s heartbreaking to me to see how kids are constantly on their phones and not interacting, not being social and feeling left out,” said Richelsen, who attends Guardian Angels in Chaska. “[They’re] not engaging with the world, making friends and talking to their families. When you go into restaurants, and everybody is plugged in on an iPad or phone, to me, it’s just not acceptable.”

She didn’t allow her younger children to have smartphones until they were 14, making them the last of their friends to join in. Her children know that at any time she can read a text or view a Snap. All technology must be plugged in at their main-floor message center before bedtime. There are no phones in the bedroom or at the dinner table.

Her kids borrowed phones to arrange a ride after sports practice. Social events were planned through the parents. The minor inconveniences and resisting the peer pressure were a worthwhile trade for avoiding the physical, mental and emotional stressors that come from handing a super computer to a young child, she said.

Smartphones offer access to quality, faith-based content like the Laudate Catholic app or Relevant Radio. But it’s the influence of social media and other sites that are most impacting children in the selfie generation. Adults learned character-building traits and virtues like respect and manners before the influence of technology, and many of today’s children are looking into their screens for examples of how to act and what to believe.

“When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care of Our Common Home.”

And while technology connects us more than ever before, it also separates us. It’s a daily dichotomy families face when screens physically stand in the way of deep relationships.

“Use of these devices isolates users from the people and world around them when engaging in the world and family is the best teacher and the healthiest way for children to grow and develop,” said Sister Rose Pacatte, a Daughter of St. Paul and the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.

Parents should strive to designate family time together and really commit to it, Sister Rose said. For people of all ages, living authentically both on and offline is key to living out our faith.

“For screen time to enhance our humanity and therefore our faith lives, it’s about what we watch and do with what we consume via these new media,” Sister Rose said. “It’s about our behavior on social media sites, being persons of good character and living Christian values whenever we engage or create content via a Facebook message, Instagram photo or a tweet.”

A crisis in parenting

At dinner time, Mark Piper, a Chicago-based retreat center director, hits “print” on his home computer. He knows the recipe would be just a few clicks away on the family tablet, but it’s a simple way to reduce screen time. The parent of two referred to the dramatic rise in technology use among both parents and children as a “crisis in parenting” in a National Catholic Reporter article he wrote earlier this year.

“As a parent, I try to limit the screen time of my children, while subconsciously or not, I’m constantly having screens around me,” he said.

At age 31, Piper grew up without GPS in the car, a smart TV or Pandora. Now, with smart devices dominating daily life, he said it’s easy to underestimate how much screen time we log, including in front of our children.

At home, he tries to keep his smartphone upstairs and silence the ringer, and the whole family keeps phones tucked away during mealtime. The ministry of presence, he said, points to the Baptismal Rite where parents commit to being teachers of the faith, which can’t be achieved through a screen.

“It is not the issue of physical proximity that people care about, it’s the attentiveness,” Piper said.

He prioritizes quality over quantity for his young children, favoring the PBS app and other tools if they comply with the childhood development guidelines. He advocates for balance and for boundaries, which ultimately honors the human person and supports genuine interpersonal relationships.

“God became flesh…the Incarnation, that embodying, is important and central to our faith,” Piper explained. “As wonderful as it is to connect with people or to see grandpa and grandma on FaceTime, there will never be a substitution for that human-to-human interaction.”

Stoffel agrees. Inanimate objects like smartphones and tablets cannot replace a personal relationship with God and others, and online ventures like video games, social media, pornography and excess shopping only give temporary satisfaction. In family life, which represents the domestic church, parents have the obligation to teach the love of God and one another, she said.

“This can’t be taught on a screen,” Stoffel said. “It needs to be lived day in and day out.”

In her book, she doesn’t advocate for eliminating phones, except for young children. Instead, she proposes a thoughtful, intentional approach to screen use to regain balance. This starts by defining a house culture that supports your values and virtues and creating a family media plan.

“If you are a Catholic family, then worship God, don’t worship your devices. Live your Catholic values in both the real world and the digital world,” she said.

From there, Catholics can create a “modern village” of people who share like-minded goals and values. Think “no technology” carpools and screen-free birthday parties. While it’s going to take time for Silicon Valley and lawmakers to adopt new standards for screen use, it’s going to have to start with parents stepping outside the norm and instilling change.

“This change has to start local. Get some change in your house, on your block, in your kid’s school, and then let’s build from there,” Stoffel said. “We can’t wait for the rest of the world to do it.”

10 tips for managing smartphones

“Text neck” and “screen addiction” were unknown terms more than a decade ago. Children are playing outside 50% less and immersing themselves in social media, which many say is contributing to the one in five rate of American children ages 3 to 17 with mental, emotional or behavioral disorders like depression and anxiety.

To curb the effects of screen time, Judy Stoffel offers 50 tips in her book, “#LookUp: A Parenting Guide to Screen Use.”

Here are 10 of them, edited for length:

1. Walk the walk: Distracted parents cultivate distracted children. We must model the behavior we hope to see in our children. On our faith journey, we can’t teach our children to participate in Mass every Sunday, then skip going ourselves.

2. Hold off on that phone purchase: This is probably one of the hardest tips because of the peer pressure, but it’s much easier than keeping track of what they’re doing on their phone. If you need to, start with a flip phone with no data.

3. Develop a family media plan: We need to teach boundaries and balance, and it’s important to start when they’re young so rules can turn into good habits for life. Teaching the “why” ensures they have a healthy relationship with technology.

4. Out of sight, out of mind: Proximity matters, so establish a central location for all phones. If you carry it with you, put it in your backpack, purse or locker. If it’s in your pocket, turn it off or on airplane mode so you’re not unconsciously waiting for it to ping, ding, ring or vibrate.

5. No phone in the bedroom: Silicon Valley executives follow this rule for their own children, and it should be the first rule you put in place when they get a phone.

6. Decrease blue light: Most devices have a higher percentage of blue light waves than any other light source, which can slow melatonin production. Try no screens two hours before bedtime or use blue light blocking glasses like Felix Grey glasses.

7. Go to the desert: Try to put the devices down and incorporate reading Scripture with your children. Do the rosary, a novena or eucharistic adoration. Designate tech-free times to reconnect as a family.

8. Go grayscale: To keep the functionality of your phone but decrease the visual appeal, choose the grayscale option, which turns your phone into basically a black and white TV. Navigate to “Settings>General>Accessibility” and then “color filters” to enable grayscale.

9. Protect yourself from yourself: Move time-wasting apps from your homepage to the second or third page so they’re more difficult to access. Alternatively, delete the app on your phone to only access it from your web browser or your laptop or desktop computer.

10. Play, play, play: Think back to your childhood and what you did for fun. Have a ball? Throw or kick it. Have an old piece of fabric? Use it as a superhero cape. In the car? Count license plates from different states.

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Category: Local News