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Is technology causing a breakdown of family life?

By Nur Choudhury

Technology has become a huge part of our lives in the contemporary era. From smart TVs to mobile phones, and instant messaging to virtual gaming, we can spend hours in front of the screen on a daily basis. In many ways, technology can enhance family relationships since it allows us to keep in touch with each other and share our lives. Video Calling essentially means that grandchildren living on the other side of the world can effectively chat with their grandparents everyday. This is a great blessing, however, arguably, too much of anything is never a good thing.

It must be noted that most conversations around screen time focus on children using screens and the impact it has on their health. We know that it can affect their relationships, social interactions and even their performance at school. However, the fact is, screen time influences the family unit as a whole. Parents, too, can spend too much time on their phones, especially in front of their children and this can have dire consequences on family life.

Technoference and child behaviour

“Technoference” is the term that scientists use to refer to technological interference. It refers to the way our phones and other technology can intrude on, and interfere with, everyday moments with family and loved ones. Imagine going out for a meal with your wife and children, and constantly checking and refreshing your emails. This kind of distraction will take away from the attention you give your family in the moment. It can take depth out of what could otherwise be a great way to bond, chatter and share meaningful conversation that fills your family’s love tanks so they can carry on living and achieving in the best way imaginable. Indeed, Gary Chapman in his book ‘The 5 Languages of Love’ recognises ‘quality time’ as a love language that is important to many people.

Moreover, many will be familiar with the ‘Still Face Paradigm” experiment from the 1970s. This is where infants were exposed to an expressionless mother. After a few minutes of “still face” interaction from their mothers, the infants become wary and withdrawn. The study highlighted how important facial expressions and interaction are to young children for their overall health and happiness. Against this backdrop, an updated study was done where parents were engaged with the phone instead. In both scenarios parents were present, but disengaged, and the results were similar when it came to the impact on young children. The study’s co-author Tracy Dennis-Tiwary said: “Results suggest that, like other forms of maternal withdrawal and unresponsiveness, mobile device use can have a negative impact on infant social-emotional functioning and parent-child interactions.”

The reality is, when parents are engaged with their devices they are less attentive to their children. They are less aware of their child’s expressed needs, and they can become robotic and abrupt when dealing with them. In another study, Illinois State and the University of Michigan set out to find out the impact of this type of interaction with parents on a child’s behaviour. They found that even ‘low’ instances of technoference resulted in higher child behaviour problems.

Why do we turn to our screens and devices so often

For those of us born in the 70s and 80s, our children are probably the first generation that feels in competition with technology when it comes to parental attention. It is a new phenomenon, and many of us remember the first large brick-like mobile phones which have evolved into smarter and more efficient phones over the last couple of decades. Mobile phone manufacturers simply want to sell their devices, and they will make them more and more appealing. Similar to soft drink and sweet manufacturers, public health and societal well-being are not at the forefront of the agenda for these companies. We easily fall into the trap, and pay the ultimate price with our health and personal relationships.

In addition, technology has become the easy way to unwind and enjoy downtime. And no one can deny that parenting can be stressful and depleting. This essentially creates a technoference spiral since our children stress us out, which makes us turn to our phones, which causes them to act out for attention, which may result in us reaching for our phones once more. This spiral must be broken. Catherine Steiner, in her book which focuses on the topic, mentions how children of all ages complain of a new type of “sibling rivalry”, but it’s not another sibling, it is in fact the device that is taking over their parents’ attention.

How can we strike the balance

To find solutions to this growing phenomenon of disconnect between parents and children, we must acknowledge first and foremost that there is a problem. It isn’t going to be helpful to simply blame parents, because unfortunately, they also are navigating untreaded waters. They are the first generation of parents dealing with this ginormous issue with dire consequences for family life.

Parents are more aware than ever of the importance of interaction with babies, of eye contact and face to face communication. They know that their children are well aware when they are half-distracted by their facebook newsfeed. But technology is addictive, and checking phones and refreshing mail has become impulsive. So what can we do about this? Going cold turkey isn’t for everyone, and cutting out technology from every aspect of family life probably isn’t practical. But there is always a middle way.

Ways to manage screen time use

The Prophet Muhammad was sent as an “excellent example” [Quran 33:21] for mankind. We must follow his example when it comes to worship, and also when it comes to his human behaviour like eating, drinking and his relationships with his family and companions. In the blessed shamail he is described, when addressing someone, to “turn to them fully” [shamail 1:7] meaning that he did not simply glance or turn his head, but gave them his undivided attention. Through this, each one of his companions would feel as he was the most important person to them. When it came to his children, there are also narrations of how he would stand up to greet his beloved daughter Fatima Zahra, and kiss her between the eyes. He would lay down his garment for her to sit on. It is these gestures of attention with full presence that result in deep and meaningful relationships within families. They are the foundations of solid family life which in turn make up strong, present and successful communities and societies.

It is clear that being connected to our devices around the clock is having detrimental consequences for our family’s well being. One of the ways to combat this to be create tech-free zones or times. Make mealtimes tech free, where family members don’t check phones.

In addition, you can designate family time in the evening before bed when connection between children and adults is prioritised. This can be through reading alone or aloud, playing board games, exercising together, praying together, or sharing a hot drink before bedtime.

Sometimes, you may see your child happily playing independently and may take that opportunity to check your email and messages or update yourself on the news. This is not wrong. The crucial thing is to not get lost in your device and to be sure to check in with your child regularly. If your child needs help, choose to help them over continuing with your phone. These little gestures will help your child feel secure and confident that they do not need to compete with a device for your attention.

Children often model behaviour, and they will ask to do what you do. While you may think that you don’t use your smartphone that often, you may be surprised to learn that sometimes it is a reflex where you find yourself scrolling through your phone between tasks. To this end, it can help to download an app which helps track your phone use. You may be surprised to learn the bitter truth about how many hours you spend staring at your screen and it may cause you to cut down.

Summary

Giving someone our whole and undivided attention is one of the best gifts we can give them. Children, in particular, require frequent physical and emotional connection to thrive and grow into confident, secure and balanced human beings. A study from the Journal Of Family Psychology found that increasing family time without the TV or computer can result in ample benefits. This includes reduction in emotional problems as well as improvement in the quality of sleep and performance in school.

The benefits are also for the adults. Distracted attention never leads to depth in human relationships and emotion that stable and mature adults need. It is not enough to just be physically present, but we must also be emotionally and mentally in the moment to truly experience the joy of connection between us and our children.