published Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Baumgardner: Technology explosion is getting in the way of family connection

By Julie Baumgardner

Do you remember when the only television in the home was in the family room, or when your family traveled in the car, everybody tried to find license plates from all 50 states?

Now practically every car is equipped with a DVD player and every home has multiple televisions.

In the last five decades, technology has exploded. It has gone from a fixed location with limited capability and parental regulation to being everywhere, unlimited and extremely difficult to regulate.

At a recent conference on strengthening the family, author and clinical counselor John Van Epp posed these questions: To what extent will families allow their relationships to be fused with technology? Are families unplugging devices to really plug into each other?

Based on a number of studies, it appears that families aren't doing a great job of connecting.

Consider these examples: A group from Boston Medical Center went into fast-food restaurants to watch family interaction, specifically looking at caregiver engagement with children. Out of 55 families, 40 parents were involved with their phone, which the researchers referred to as "absorption with the mobile device." When a child started prompting a parent for attention, the child got in trouble for interrupting the parent.

A four-year, intensive in-home study of 32 families conducted by Elinor Ochs, an anthropologist at UCLA, found the primary theme was multi-tasking in the lives of the family members. She cites an all-too-familiar conversation between parent and child: "My parents always tell me that I can't do homework while listening to music, but what they don't understand is that it helps me to concentrate."

Continuing to make his case, Van Epp cited David Myers' work as the director of the Brain Cognition Lab at the University of Michigan. Myers is very clear that the brain does not multi-task. It may act in parallel functions (touch, sound, vision), but when engaging in distinctly different tasks, the brain operates like a toggle switch jumping from one thing to another. Myers debunks the myth that students are great multi-taskers, stating: The bottom line is you cannot simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay."

"This constant multi-tasking that people are doing results in dopamine 'squirts,' which lead to an addiction for constant techno-activity," said Van Epp. "Yet studies show that downtime for the brain is essential to the development of identity, morals, empathy and creativity."

So he laid out a challenge: Lay your smartphone down and see if you can go for an hour without picking it up.

"Research shows that technology is actually producing higher rates of anxiety among children and adults," he said. "Apps are influencing child development, short-circuiting identity formation, discouraging face-to-face interactions and creating superficial intimacy."

If you still aren't convinced this is an issue, check out "Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain," an article in the New York Times. And as icing on the cake, watch Gary Turk's "Look Up" on YouTube.

"We must begin balancing technology and real time with loved ones," said Van Epp. "We can't let technology define us. Gains in family interactions can never be replaced by advances in technology."

Will your family unplug devices in order to really plug into each other?

Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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