Do Not Disconnect: Wired Parenting Has Both Benefits and Costs

Geek Culture

Do Not DisconnectDo Not Disconnect

Do Not Disconnect. Photo: Rae Whitlock via Flickr

Does the technology designed to bring us together actually push us farther apart?

This past week my wife and a couple friends independently sent me a link to an article in the New York Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series. The article, entitled “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In,” raises some questions about whether the increasing prevalence of always-on, always-connected devices (smartphones in particular) are actually causing us to disconnect from our kids. I think this issue is relevant to us geeky parents because we’re especially likely to have all these gadgets. (Penny Arcade’s Tycho recently noted that he’d caught himself using a Nook, a laptop, an iPad and an iPhone simultaneously.)

There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not it’s wise to let kids use cell phones, computers and other technology, but not as much focus on the effect on kids when their parents use such technology. I’m very curious about the results of studies done by Dr. Sherry Turkle of MIT on the subject, though I’m not sure I’ll like them.

The primary problem mentioned in the article: we’re addicted to our gadgets. Even when we’re with our kids, we aren’t really, because half (or more) of our attention is devoted to a little screen as we check email, send texts, and catch up on Tweets. While I don’t have a smartphone myself, I know sometimes the only thing preventing me from doing the same thing is when there’s no wifi network for my iPod touch.

Family TimeFamily Time

Family Time. Photo: zenobia_joy via Flickr

The lament that too much technology is bad for us is nothing new. I’ve described the way iPods have made listening to music a personal rather than a communal activity, and earlier this year I tried to encourage you to start singletasking. A recent book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, argues that the Internet is making us stupid. But I’m no Luddite; I’m just a cheapskate and a late adopter. The biggest reason I don’t have a smartphone (aside from the limited choices I get in rural Kansas) is the cost. I do try to limit my kids’ screen time, but I confess that I don’t necessarily limit my own. I often sound just like the mom in the article telling her kid “Just wait a second. Just wait a second.”

There are, of course, ways that technology has allowed us to spend more time with each other. Skype has enabled my kids to see their grandparents, and when I took the older geeklet to Taiwan last summer we used it to keep in touch with mom and little sister. We’ve even used Skype for “playdates” with cousins and friends from other states, apparently a growing trend according to CNN. And of course if it’s true that cell phone radiation is cooking our brains (cf. This American Life episode #406: True Urban Legends), maybe it’s better for us to be texting instead of holding little microwave ovens up to our heads.

I think what it boils down to is this: much of our technology helps to connect us to people who are far away—at the expense of those who are right here with us. This is also nothing new: it’s an old habit to interrupt a face-to-face conversation to answer the phone, to shush your kids while you’re watching TV or reading the newspaper. But as parents, we have a special responsibility to spend time with our kids, and I don’t mean sitting in the same room while staring at different screens. We need to talk to our kids, read them stories, laugh at the goofy things they do instead of treating them like interruptions from our very important Facebook status updating.

And if technology isn’t the barrier between us and our kids, maybe we need to figure out what is. My wife has a Droid, and there are times I want to ban it from the dinner table … but then she might tell me I have to put my book away, too.

[Editor’s Note: Check out Monday’s episode of the American Public Media radio show Future Tense where I’ll be talking with host John Moe about the NYT story mentioned in this post! ~KD]

Flickr images used under Creative Commons licenses.

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