Increasingly we rely on technology, email, voicemail, Facebook, Snapchat, and texting to communicate with others. It is not uncommon for groups of children and teens to gather for a social outing only to be found looking at their phones and not at one another. Our level of engagement and the way we spend time with one another is changing rapidly and with great consequences.

family talking at dinner

One of the main reasons young children held my attention for decades is because of their keen ability to engage us with creative, entertaining, and very humorous, conversation. The way that children weave their colorful stories and experiences into expressive language is what makes them so great to talk to. Where do they learn how to do this? From the adults around them: parents, teachers, neighbors, the Muni driver, the grouchy store owner, the helpful librarian, the funny butcher behind the counter. They also learn social skills from peers and siblings. The art of conversation is developed by practicing it. When we have conversations and time with our children, we let the nuances of human interaction unfold. We learn to take cues from one another’s facial expressions and body language.

Youth are spending on average, 9 hours a day on electronic devices instead of talking to one another in real time. Even when children are present, they are distracted by their devices. A recent TED Talk by psychologist Sherry Turkle revealed that many of our teens, “do not know how to relate to one another and have a conversation.” An 18 year-old client said to her, “Someday, I hope to learn how to have a conversation.”

How about us adults? What example are we setting? Is there nothing more upsetting then to be sharing our day—a mishap, something that mattered—only to realize that our partner is checking their email messages? How discounted we feel. I know some parents who ask their children to put down their phones when guests arrive. Those very same parents are checking their emails at the breakfast table the next day!

Our children and our teens are experiencing these conflicting messages daily, evenly hourly, as they navigate the world around them and watch us model addictive levels of cell phone and computer usage. We are spending more time on technology than with one another. The consequences are lost connections that are the foundation and basis for healthy development and our children’s identities.

For parents with young children who sense the world of technology seeping in, here are a few considerations for the home:

  1. Invest in one or two family computers: one for the children and one for the adults. Keep them in a common area, (kitchen, dining room, den, etc.)
  2. Keep phones and computers out of bedrooms. Ensure that some homework is still done with a pencil. Double check with teachers if you get a backlash.
  3. Have kids sign up for their 1 — 2 hour block of time for computer use during the week and on the weekends. Each family member has to honor the amount of time that they sign up for.
  4. Extended time can be granted if needed.
  5. Create a technology trade: 1 hour of technology for every 2 hours of reading.
  6. Community work—a kind deed for a neighbor, sibling, senior, or pet, might be part of a family value—before screen time.
  7. Model that phones and food do not go together—no phones at the family table.
  8. When play dates are scheduled, talk to children before hand. What is the expectation? Is screen time allowed?
  9. Communicate with other parents and support one another about technology usage and setting limits when we care for other children in our home.
  10. Develop hobbies so that your children can expand their interests and themselves beyond screen time.

Moreover, remember that growing our children takes time and patience. Technology gives us the satisfaction of quick rewards. Give children the gifts of your time, conversation, being a good listener, developing their voic,e and feeling valued. Need more ideas and information?

Mechele Pruitt is the Director of Parents Place in San Francisco.