Technological developments are altering every facet of the world we live in, environmentally, scientifically and socially. We often focus on the universal externalities of technological communications, such as the effects of globalization or the threat to privacy, whilst we fail to recognize the significant implications occurring within our own households; namely, the shifting nature of family communication and bonding.
Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is better known for joining the “Gang of Eight” senators that have been integral in recent discussions and negotiations of United States immigration laws, but he has also caused discussion over his decision to take his two youngest sons on a four-day, ‘digital-detox’ to a deserted island in the central pacific. Flake, 50 years old, went on his own digital-detox trip four years ago to a deserted island and was impacted by the effects of being connected to nature and one’s own thoughts without technology; so this time he wanted to bring his boys along for the journey. “It was just a wonderful time to be with my boys,” Flake recalls in a reflective diary that he recorded his experience in and released to the media to prove the legitimacy of his trip, “no video games, no television, no distractions, no texting.”
I don’t think that anyone would disagree with Senator Jeff Flake regarding the myriad of benefits a family unit could experience from an escape to a remote tropical island, without the ceaseless technological distractions that we are all used to. However, is technology really something to be wary of, and will endless exposure to the digital world actually be socially harmful to developing youth?
HUMAN VS TECHNOLOGY
The innovative changes that alter our communication with friends and colleagues are inextricably apparent, as we constantly text, email, chat and connect via social media. On the other hand, these same developments that are improving our professional correspondence, may be detrimentally damaging our family’s social skills and emotional bonding, explains Dr. Gary Small, co-author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. Dr. Small describes the change in families’ ability to communicate at the dinner table because we are inundated by technology, and how both parent and child are often distracted and not wholly present. “To a certain extent, I think that the opportunities for developing the brain’s neural networks that control our face-to-face social skills – what many define as our humanity – are being lost or at least compromised, as families become more fractured. Think about your family life, and ask yourself if technology is bringing you closer or farther from the people you care about?”
It is not only the quality of family engagement during dinnertime that is concerning, it is also the quantity. Studies conducted before the rise of the Internet estimated that the average family unit sat down for dinner six days a week, whereas recent studies bleakly show that an average family will only sit down for dinner together once a week. The change in these statistics will, of course, be due to many positive societal changes, such as the increase in job opportunities for mothers and the availability of extra-curricular activities for youth, however the bleak fact remains that families are becoming less connected. A nationwide study conducted by the University of Minnesota surveyed nearly 100,000 teenagers, this study links higher frequency of family dinners with positive values and a greater commitment to learning. The study shows that adolescents who experience a lower frequency of family dinners exhibit a higher tendency for high-risk behavior, such as violence, sexual activity, substance abuse, suicide attempts and academic issues.
TECHNOLOGY CAN ENHACE FAMILY BONDS
It is not completely dismal for the family unit in the technological age. Parents who have older children, that have left for college or are beginning families of their own, are reporting that they feel that technology has consolidated their family bond and that they are considerably closer to their children than they were with their own parents. They say that the ease of emails, text messaging and mobiles has meant they are able to be consistently updated on their children’s lives and experiences, which is particularly important as globalization continues and the rate at which people live farther away from their place of birth is increasing, not to mention the immeasurable mental health benefits accrued from the constant learning of new skills by older generations.
You might be thinking to yourself, ‘OK, technology is beneficial once my children are independent, but how do I prevent it from permanently sabotaging their social skills in the meantime?’ There are actually some cutting-edge programs that promote family communication, such as Family eJournal. This is an interactive website, where a set of four questions are posted each day and family members respond to them online. The result is that each family member builds a novel rapport, familiarity and connection when they read each other’s answers. Family members from 8 years and older can participate, from children to grandparents, to aunts and uncles. Whilst such activities are undoubtedly valuable, the true answer is found in moderating your children’s use of technology, establishing limits during family time and encouraging them to partake in sociable activities.