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  • Writer's pictureGena Martine Santoni

Trapped in the Matrix

We’ve all been there. We’ve seen the couple dining across from each other, both cell phones out, uttering the occasional monosyllable. We’ve seen the children down at one end of the table, playing video games, oblivious to the conversation, the view, the expensive dinner. You have warily eyed the person walking straight toward you head bent over the screen, thumbs a blur, ready to hop out of the way lest they crash right into you, blind to your presence. We’ve read the stories of people falling off cliffs and crashing into trees while playing digital games. We’ve been forced to wait at green lights and been nearly sideswiped, or worse, by people attempting the ultimate feat of multitasking - texting while driving.

It would seem that many of us are not handling the addictive quality of smart phones all that well. This is the dark side of technology. You think it’s hard for an adult? Think of how hard it is for a kid. Perhaps, you’ve heard some of these statistics:

- A 2014 report declared that 55% of phone users text while driving; driving while texting is thought to be at least 6 times more dangerous than driving drunk.

- 72% of participants in a poll by SecurEnvoy indicated that their phone is always less than 5 feet away.

- A Time survey reported that 50% of Americans sleep with their cell phones next to them - for comfort. That number jumps to 80% for 18-24 year olds.

- According to Psychology Today, 40% of the population suffers from Nomophobia (the fear of being without a smartphone).

Many of us bemoan the state of manners now that smart phones are pervasive, and we are in a quandary as to what can be done about it. Our digital devices are here to stay. They can be hugely useful, and besides, we like them! Absent a rule book we all agree to abide by as a society, there’s only one thing to do, and that is to lead by example. And for your children, that leadership begins with you.

We often wish children would show more respect and interact with us, and even with each other, without having to be told to put the phone down. Well, I hate to break it to you, but they often feel the same way. Only they aren’t allowed to tell you to put the phone down. I’m not suggesting that children and adults should be on equal footing. Adults have obligations necessitating phone use that children do not. That being said, children learn what is truly important to us not just by what we say, but much more impactfully, by what we do. If we stress the importance of showing respect to those around us by putting the phone away but then contradict ourselves by our actions, we are not only confusing our children, we are proving ourselves to be, in fact, hypocrites. This, as you well know, leads to disrespect, if not in deed then in thought.

We love our freedom, and therefore boundaries, rules and structure can seem very restrictive when we think about them in the abstract. But structure actually has a way of creating space. In this case, delineating device-free time can be quite liberating. Constantly checking the phone and feeling that we have to respond to every message immediately can be quite stress building. Kids may be concerned that their friends will feel jilted if they don’t respond right away, and they don’t necessarily know how to handle it. That’s where you come in.

You are the parent, i.e. the boss. You get to decide when too much phone time is too much. You get to set the boundaries and create the structure. Perhaps this could be a family project. Sometimes you will get better cooperation if all the parties involved have some say. But in the end, the buck stops with you. Is it easy? Hah! But it is important. While you might have to deal with opposition and complaining up front, you might be surprised to find out how much more relaxed and focused your children become. If your children have not yet reached the stage at which devices become of paramount importance, you have the advantage of starting out with a strategy in mind.

As a concerned parent, you have probably read that immersive and interactive games, such as Pokemon Go, can cause a blurring of reality in some young children. It may actually alter the structure of their still developing brains. Another problem is that as people live more and more of their lives through their phones, they become less and less adept socially. This is becoming readily apparent with young people attempting to enter the workforce many of whom suffer from lack of practice in person to person interactions. Texting is no substitute for conversation. While we stare at the screen we pay very little attention to the world around us and instead abide in the world of the virtual. We have entered the Matrix, and we don’t realize how long we are actually spending there.

So, what to do? I have listed a few books that have some good information if you are interested. But here are a few quick ideas. Perhaps you already incorporate some of them.

- As Peggy Post is quoted as saying, “The family meal is a social event, not a food ingestion event.” That goes for everybody. No devices at the table. Restaurants, too. Not even in your pocket. If that causes separation anxiety, that’s a problem worth thinking about. What about emergencies? Remember when we were kids how our parents left the name and phone number of the restaurant on the refridgerator - just in case? Hmmmmm.

- Some families use a Cell Phone Basket. When you walk through the door, the phone goes in the basket. Guest’s phones, too.

- Keep all the phone chargers in the master bedroom. Set a time when phones must be there, and stay there.

- Take a Family Phone Fast. No phones for anybody for a set period of time. Not even for photos. All evening after school, a day, a week-end, an entire vacation (bring an actual camera).

- For a tech solution to a tech challenge, perhaps a device such as Disney’s Circle might interest you. It allows you to monitor, and set limits on, inidvidual devices with an app on your phone.

The world has changed, and more changes are just around the corner. Every new technology comes with a learning curve, not just in it’s beneficial uses, but in it’s potential dark side. Giving our children tools to manage their devices - instead of being managed by them - can help them find the light. And perhaps help us, too, in the process


Suggested Reading:

Growing Up Social: Raising Relational Kids in a Screen-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane

Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids by Nicholas Kardaras

Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World by Devorah Heitner

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