Yet, most family therapists could attest to the increasing frequency of complaints parents and spouses have regarding the feeling of having to compete for attention with electronics. Even though tech has proffered new and easily accessible ways to connect, it seems the art of genuine connection is being threatened.
Here are a few ways families and individuals can help put technology in its place and foster better offline relationships. We’re going to channel the great chef, Emeril Lagasse, and remember these helpful guidelines with the acronym BAM! Now, let’s take it up a notch!
Boundaries: Does My Tech Have a Place?
The first step for integrating technology in a healthy way with your family and by establishing healthy boundaries. It is not uncommon to establish boundaries on time/length on television or game-play, but this can be more difficult with phones. They are so easy to access! The phrase “real quick” is the most frequent lie we tell ourselves and others about “just checking” electronics. That is why it is so crucial to establish and agree on boundaries as a family. If the family is not in agreement prior to establishing these expectations, it will become a source of contention rather than an increase in cohesion. There are three areas I encourage people to focus on:
- Money: The amount of money someone can spend on a device, how they get that money, and how it works into a budget can be a fantastic opportunity to build trust and teach budgeting skills. Dave Ramsey has some great tools to help children learn how to manage money! There are several tools online for this, but this is what I have used.
- Devices: Confession time! I have three tablets at home that I haven’t meaningfully used in a year. THREE. I even have an extra smart-watch! Older devices can be re-purposed in all kinds of creative ways (children’s tablets, picture frames, security system, etc), sold online, given to friends, used for shooting practice, whatever! The issue is, do we need this stuff to stick around or is it just junking up our life? Prior to getting something new, what are the rules about managing the old? With my wife’s purses, there is a rule: No new purses until you get rid of one old purse. This may sound cruel, but it was born of necessity (love you honey!).
- Length of time: How much time, per day, can we spend on a devices? Does this include time spent for work or school? Does listening to music while exercising count? Be specific!
- Times of day: Rather than specific times of day, I have found it can be very helpful to identify general times when electronics should not interfere with family. An hour before bedtime, during meals, and after 9:00 at night. This helps people be more intentional about when they’re on their phone and more aware of what is going on at home.
- Physical restrictions: Is there a centralized place in the home for electronics? Do they have a house that’s not your pocket? In addition, do electronics go into bedrooms? I would discourage this for EVERYONE. You can use an alarm clock that’s not your phone. Want your children to sleep better? Want to connect with your spouse more? Leave the phones, TV’s, gaming consoles, tablets, iPod’s, laptops, smartwatches, VR units, and whatever else out of the bedroom.
- Electronic Restrictions: Security is important and there can be sensitive information on cellphones. However, if there have been breaches of trust in relationship, security may not be an option for you. Discuss this with your spouse or children if it’s necessary for work. Be willing to show what you can, when asked, with a positive attitude. In addition, is there a time of day when the Wi-Fi can be turned off? Do we really need to be connected 24/7?
- GPS tracking: This is a really cool feature of new phones! Pull up the right app and you can see exactly where you child/spouse is! If you’re going to use this feature, be honest with your children/spouse. Otherwise, it will serve to break more trust than it creates. Also, remember this: These apps only tell you where the phone is, not the person. A dead battery can result in all kinds of panic when this is the primary way of “knowing” where a loved one is. It’s cool to have and it’s not a substitute for regular communication prior to going somewhere.
- Strangers: We teach our children not to talk to strangers, and then we give them a camera and access to the entire planet that’s full of strangers. Educate yourself on dangers and protect your children from catfishing, schemes, and human trafficking. Just like you would in real life!
- When to buy: Children mature at different rates. Some 7 year old children can handle a full featured phone. Others I wouldn’t trust with a stick. I can tell you the rule in our house is that our children can have a phone when they can afford to pay for a phone and the accompanying plan. That is the level of responsibility we are looking for prior to offering someone unfettered access to anyone with a wifi signal.
Alternatives: Is There Something Better Than My Tech?
In an attempt to encourage better engagement in personal relationships, parents and spouses can accidentally engage in a power dynamic that further injures the very attachment they seek to strengthen. Here’s a fictional example:
Jennie: “Tom, why don’t you put the phone down and hang out with me?”
Tom, staring intently at his phone: “I just have to finish this email real quick!”
Jennie: “If you cared about me as much as you did that stupid email, our relationship might be better!”
Tom, looking angry and dejected: “This is for work! The thing I do to bring home money so we can eat and do all the stuff you enjoy doing!”
I don’t know an actual Tom and Jennie, but I suspect all of us have been guilty of being a Tom or Jennie at some point. Jennie, focusing on Tom’s engagement with his phone to the exclusion of her, has interpreted his behavior as a rejection of her. She wants Tom to notice her, but has gone about it in a way that makes Tom want to spend even more time in his phone!
Both Tom and Jennie have this in common: a sense of rejection. Tom feels rejected because, in his mind, he’s working diligently to “bring home the bacon”. Jennie feels rejected because Tom is paying attention to his phone when he could be paying attention to her. Here’s the challenge: What are Tom and Jennie doing to cultivate a relationship where spending time together is a better alternative than spending time on the phone?
One of the most seducing aspects of technology is its relentless availability. There is a persistent, nonjudgmental, and welcoming invitation to connect. Are families, friends, and couples, working to provide that same welcome? Neither Jennie or Tom are necessarily “at fault” here. We can talk about why Tom shouldn’t be on his phone or why Jennie shouldn’t be yelling at him. But that only solves one problem: boundaries around the phone. There is often an underlying issue of connection! In our relationships, we must be willing to ask what we’re offering that’s an alternative to technology.
Modeling: Do as I Do
How often do you ride in the car without listening to the radio? Is the television on just as background noise? Is the phone always within arms reach? There are many subtle ways to communicate the message of tech-dependence. If you want your children or your spouse to engage with technology in healthy ways, we must be willing to model this behavior ourselves!
Using BAM can help provide a framework where families and individual can put tech in its place in order to encourage healthy relationship with others. We must be willing to implement this framework in our own lives, in an intentional way, and with support from others. Technology, when kept in its proper place, can enrich our lives, work, and relationships.
Please share how your family has kept tech in check!
Nathan D. Croy, (C) 2017