In the Good Ol' Cybertime

By Dr. S

Summers at home or on the road have always presented families with special challenges. Today's technology seems to offer parents great solutions at home or during long car or airplane trips: bored and annoying children turn magically into “seen but not heard” angels as they settle down and remain occupied for long periods, quietly consuming media.

But many parents are not entirely comfortable and many even feel a bit guilty: “After all, this IS summer and a FAMILY vacation is meant to bring us together and closer.” Parents are lost: “How much media is OK? At what ages? Allow my eleven-year old to take her cell phone? Take lots of DVD movies for the back seat player? How much time for the iPod music player? How much texting?”

Parents usually have good instincts. Many know that technology consumption is, at best, a mixed blessing. Technology use usually isolates family members. Recent polls show how drastically and rapidly technology's growing seduction is changing how children spend their time year-round, with 1/5 exposed to as much as 132 hours weekly. Growing up with ubiquitous electronic input is harming imagination and creativity and leaving kids shallow, unable to self-sooth, stimulus hungry, and easily bored. With summer here, under-supervised school-free kids will now have even more exposure to junk media and will surely consume it as eagerly as they do junk food.

Here are some tips to help families succeed “in the good ol' cybertime:”

Have a plan: The best approach is to have a working home media plan and merely adapt it for the vacation schedule. Planning children's (and parents') media consumption has to become a priority as important as planning nutrition and education – and on vacation, itinerary and sights.

Put your plan into action: Use summer travel to implement your plan. During the vacation planning stage, media-soaked kids nag about taking along electronic devices. Collaborate with them, but be firm. Whenever possible, plan family trips together. Invent joint activities like setting up digital photo albums or engage in online educational projects like studying the history of points of interest and travel destinations; or start collections like postcards, rocks, or sea shells.

Unclutter: Plan vacation time to enrich kids' lives (and yours too). Work hard to replace electronic clutter and teach kids appreciation of their inner lives and the value of being fully present during quiet private alone time. Encourage thinking, observing, good conversation, collaboration, discovery, and imagination. Teach each other to silently appreciate beautiful natural scenes, art, performances, or music.

Be realistic: As everyday routines give way to large chunks of unstructured time, parents have always had to work hard to occupy bored and listless kids. Kids (and parents) who have been over-scheduled and immersed in media year-round - “addicted’ to instantly communicating in text with friends - may find themselves lost without electronics: irritable, sullen and unhappy during time with their families.

Be patient: When tensions arise, think things through to a solution – but don’t just give in by putting their gadgets back in their hands. One solution might be to either eliminate all electronic use while on vacation or agree ahead of time about a preset schedule of use. For example, one hour a day of smartphone use or limited TV watching. It is best if parents adhere to the same rules to set examples – there is strength in numbers but everybody must sign on. All family members can sign a written contract to emphasize the seriousness of your commitments, and post it wherever you can all see it.

Discourage excessive isolating activities: Vacations put people into unfamiliar proximities, and folks differ in how much personal distance they need to be comfortable with one another. People do need to get some time alone. Recognize this need for yourself and your kids too. Time alone must be balanced with time together. Privacy from others absorbed with an electronic device can sometimes bring welcome relief from tension. But there may be other ways that are healthier, like taking a walk, reading, or other solitary activities that enrich the senses and imagination.

Have fun together: Remember – this is the kids' vacation too. If you are going to use electronic gadget, use them together for family activities only like listening to music, playing video games, or watching TV. Or shut the electronics off and substitute with family games – board games, card games, singing, reading to each other, or just good old fashioned conversation.

Media experiences are changing how kids' brains are wired. Parents should not miss opportunities that summertime brings to cement family life. There’s no need for conflict. There are plenty of activities to engage positive family living both with, and without, electronic gadgetry. It’s a new era for many of us - you just need confidence and a new mindset to face the challenges.

Dr. S is Dr. Eitan D. Schwarz, M.D., is a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of KIDS, PARENTS, AND TECHNOLOGY: An Instruction Guide for Young Families. Dr. S. is a veteran clinician and teacher who practices child, adult, and family psychiatry with or without medication, in the Chicago area. Dr. S is a doctor who knows kids, media, and families. During his nearly 40 years of distinguished practice and teaching in a variety of public, private, and academic settings, Dr. S has been steadily learning about the needs of children and families. Since college at Cornell and medical school at Johns Hopkins, he has also been studying the uses of technology in health care and the practice of medicine. He has taught at the University of Chicago and University of Illinois and is currently on the faculty of Northwestern University. He has recently researched the use of digital media in play therapy with children.

To learn more about Dr. S., visit his website: www.mydigitalfamily.org. His book is available in paperback and in all digital forms.

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