The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker, provides insights about managing family life and rearing healthy children from infancy through teenage years amidst the omnipresence of technology. Steiner-Adair recognizes that technology can be a constructive learning and socializing tool—it allows us to see and speak to faraway family and enables us to learn at any time and from anywhere. However, she urges parents to be measured about their own use of technology and about the influence they let technology assert in their children’s lives. Steiner-Adair draws on her experience as a clinical psychologist, school consultant, and clinical instructor at the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School to sprinkle The Big Disconnect with illuminative personal stories from her clients.
Steiner-Adair labels technology and media as addictive, ubiquitous, laden with damaging content, fast-paced, permanent, and invasive. We are all hyperconnected all the time, and yet we are also less present in the moment and less comfortable with face-to-face interactions. Intimacy gives way to superficial social connections, which (among other problems) facilitates more vicious bullying. Children may perceive parents who are distracted by technology as emotionally unavailable. Children who get less practice with in-person interactions get less training in interpreting conversational nuances, and those with an iPad always in-hand get less practice in learning to play creatively on their own. Further, technology makes cynical, stereotype-ridden, violent, and sexual adult content intrusively present to even the most innocent children. Finally, technology assumes quick decision-making. These decisions, however, can have serious and permanent consequences (e.g., kids making expensive purchases online without their parents’ knowledge or posting cruel content about a peer that can go viral and damage that person’s reputation). The incessant blinking and buzzing in modern technology may contribute to the increased prevalence of ADHD as technology cultivates children who are more distracted.
Steiner Adair outlines the risks and challenges associated with technology usage for five age groups of childhood. She believes that there is absolutely no productive role technology can play in the life of a baby under two years old, and she goes so far as to suggest that electronics should come with warning labels stating that they may be hazardous to a baby’s development. For preschoolers, Steiner-Adair says that some technology can contribute positively to development (e.g., Sesame Street), but most shows, even those targeted to this age group, contain harmful messages. Technology use among children five and under can make them less persistent learners, less creative in their free play, less facile and empathic communicators. It can have an addictive quality to it. Steiner-Adair says that media consumption among non-white and female children ages six to ten negatively impacts their self-esteem and introduces gender-stereotypical, homophobic, and violent messages. For children under ten a vital message a parent can impart is that her child should always tell her what she has seen online, even if the child feels embarrassed.
Tweens and teens are consumed by their social media personas during a time when their real-life identity is developing. The Internet has emerged as the primary, albeit deficient, source of sex education for tweens. The average American child sees pornography by age 11. The media teach tweens and teens about a problematic “friends with benefits” model of romantic relationships that separates physical intimacy and interpersonal social interactions. Teens send sexually explicit texts (“sext”) as a way of courting one another. In response, Steiner-Adair offers a script that parents can use with male and female tweens and teens to discuss how to form healthy romantic and sexual connections and how to avoid being “friends with benefits.” Given the pervasiveness of technology in tweens and teens’ lives, Steiner-Adair argues that more important than limiting adolescents’ use of technology, is teaching them about appropriate use. The same questions that parents might ask a teen before he is allowed to use the car (who, what, where, and when) should be asked of a teen about his technology usage.
Steiner-Adair offers recommendations about how to be an approachable parent (i.e., how not to be a parent a child would describe as “scary, crazy, or clueless”). She recommends creating an “amnesty policy”: parents will not get mad if the child admits to having gotten in trouble online. Parents should model for their children the tech rules that their children should follow. Steiner-Adair ends by saying strong families are those that are deeply connected. These families play together across generations, have conversations about feelings and values, learn how to disagree constructively, appreciate each family member for his or her unique qualities, and spend time with one another with and without technology.
The Big Disconnect is an insightful guide for parents that offers advice about using technology to our advantage and knowing when to unplug.
Steiner-Adair, C., & Barker, T. H. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. Harper Business.
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