Parents must tune in as kids tune out.

The digital world is taking our children away from us.

The recent documentary “Web Junkie” depicts teens in China who have become so enamored with their video games they’ve stopped taking breaks to eat, sleep and even use the bathroom. Hours of playing have caused these kids difficulty in discerning reality and many have come to view the real world as fake. Doctors have diagnosed these children with a clinical disorder and established rehabilitation centers for them where they are kept isolated from media.

13 to 17-year-olds average 3,364 texts a month.

Even if your child is not at that level of addiction, most parents agree that our children are excessively plugged in to their devices. A 2010 study cited that the “the average 8-10 year old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Texting may become the next behavioral obsession that parents must contend with. Half of teenagers send 50 or more texts a day and 13 to 17 year olds average 3,364 texts a month. These are alarming statistics that are only increasing.

What can we do to prevent our relationship from disintegrating?

Parents Must Take Charge

For parents to make a difference, we must focus on both our own behavior as well as our children. When adults desire uninterrupted screen time, or wish their kids to keep quiet and not bother one other, we use technology as a convenient baby sitter. But we don’t stop to think about the potential harm that we are causing. Conversation ceases. Carpools, dining out and relaxed leisure time are spent in silence. Families stop sharing thoughts, interactions and laughter.

These are important bonding moments. Even sibling’s bickering becomes an opportunity to navigate relationships and learn how to speak and listen to one another. But playing Candy Crush, looking downwards and constantly checking phones prevent kids from staying focused on family. They miss out on nonverbal cues which is how we learn to communicate and read people’s emotions. And when parents were absorbed in their devices, researchers found children more likely to act out as they attempted to get attention. We encourage this behavior because we are not contemplating the impact of our actions.

Few parents have set rules for their children and teens when it comes to tech and phone use. Kids left to their own devices neglect homework, remain sedentary, are sleep deprived and become easily pulled into the addictive nature of the online world. Add to that the dangers that unknown sites and chats pose, we realize that we need to rectify this situation before it’s too late.

Dr. Stiener-Adair, in her best-selling book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” recommends the following steps:

  • Parents should think twice before using a mobile device when they’re with their children
  • Check emails and texts before interacting with children in the morning, during school hours and after kid’s bed time in the evening
  • When parents come home from work they should walk through the door unplugged. The first hour home should be used to reconnect with family. Children have said that they despise the phrase ‘just checking’ as parents look at their devices.
  • Establish ‘cell free zones’ for both parents and kids. Critical moments like pickup from school are crucial transitional time for children to talk about their day. Parents should not be saying things like ‘just a minute; I need to finish this call.’ Homework should be done without phones at hand. Dinner time both at home and in a restaurant is another ‘device free zone’. We nourish not only bodies but souls too when we join together at a table.
  • Young children should not have their own cellphones or iPads in their bedrooms. As children get older be wary of devices and where they are used. Teenagers require limits and it is not too late to set them. Don’t be afraid of taking charge and enforcing appropriate rules.
  • Caretakers should also be made aware of the dangers of not paying full attention to the children in their charge. There has been a recent 20% increase in accidental injuries seen in pediatric emergency rooms attributed to caretakers’ texting or talking on their phones and not properly watching children while they were in the bath or on the jungle gym.

The negative effect on our relationship with our children is best seen through the words of a girl interviewed for Dr. Stiener-Adair’s book. She said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, any time, even on a ski lift.”

We must take the time to disengage from the world of technology and nourish our relationships. Heartache comes when we realize that we have wasted years looking down and missing out on connecting with those we love who sit in front of us, waiting to look into our eyes. Our children need to feel that we value our time together. They deserve our full attention and we will never regret time spent together.

Slovie Jungreis-Wolff is a freelance writer, and a relationships and parenting instructor. She is the daughter of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder of Hineni International. Slovie has taught Hineni Young Couples and Parenting classes for more than 15 years. Her book, Raising A Child With Soul, is published by St. Martin's Press.

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