What’s happening in the ad world these days? One TV ad running in my area is of a mother who, the narrator chirps, is a master multitasker. She is on a cell phone while making her kids breakfast and sending them off for the day. She’s on the cell phone while doing the grocery shopping with her kids.
She doesn’t even take that phone off her ear when going through the checkout line. Yes, she’s smiling all the time but how is it that whoever is on the other end of that phone is more important than relating to her children and the people in front of her?
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Another ad: A woman tells us she is in charge of the family finances and she is so, so happy that she’s found a bundle of cable services that is faster than her old company. We follow her through the house as she indicates her daughter in her room on a computer, her husband in the living room on his laptop and her son in the family room on his tablet. Everyone is happy to have speedy Internet. Everyone is in a different room.
Together alone. Are the ads reflecting American life or are they showing us what we should accept as “normal”? The people who make the ads know what sells. What they seem to be selling these days is the idea that it is normative for family members to be more interested in their electronics than each other. They may even be right.
According to a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids between the ages of 8 to 18 are now spending more than seven and a half hours a day on devices with screens (computers, TVs, and other electronics.) That doesn’t count time spent texting or talking on cell phones. Meanwhile, research shows that American working parents spend an average of 19 minutes a day of quality time with their children! A study by the U.S. Department of Education found that mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day talking with their children while other polls show that fathers spend an average of 15 minutes per day.
Do the math! Who, or rather what, is spending the most time with our children?
Yes, I know. Computers are a fact of life. A kid who grows up in a home without one is at a decided disadvantage. More and more teachers assume the kids have one available and create assignments that require the ability to search the Internet for information. Social inclusion seems to require it. Cell phones provide a measure of safety for kids who are home alone or who are traveling from place to place.
But there’s a dark side. The time with computers can slide from use to abuse so gradually that we barely notice. That’s why the multitasker mom in the TV ad is so disturbing. She probably isn’t aware of how that little box on her ear has separated her from her children and her community. She thinks she can both be on the phone and in life. As happy as she seems to be, she’s missing interactions that are important to her children’s development and to her relationship with them. She’s missing the opportunity to give her kids a warm send-off in the morning. She isn’t teaching her kids about nutrition, budgeting, and courtesy at the grocery store. The message she is giving them is that they are along for her ride, not important in their own right.
As connected as everyone seems to be with the social world, it takes some effort to make genuine connections within the family. Kids need the nurturing that only another human being can provide. They need role models from life, not from TV, about how to be an adult, how to be in loving relationship with a partner, and how to parent their children. They need more protection than “nannyware” can provide from material that is too mature or too stimulating for them to handle. They need to learn how to get information from people as well as from Google. They need parents to monitor their progress and school and to teach them to value schooling. They need gentle teaching by loving parents about what is important culturally and spiritually.
The mom who happily takes us through her perfect house, finding her perfectly happy family members in separate corners, should be concerned. Is her tour just a moment in time, or is it a reflection of the general state of relationships in her family? If it is the latter, she and her husband have some talking to do about how to fix their lack of connection with their kids.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on the subject. They recommend that parents establish “screen-free” zones in our homes. That means no TVs or computers in kids’ bedrooms and limiting entertainment time on computers to two hours a day or less. Further, they stress the importance of monitoring what our kids are watching (and playing if in online gaming) for quality.
It almost doesn’t matter what adults do with kids as long as there is an opportunity to talk, to have affectionate physical contact and to pass on information, values, and beliefs. Having a game of catch outside, chatting while making dinner together or washing the car or snuggling up on the couch to read stories all provide the one-on-one, adult-to-kid time that gives our kids things no screen, no matter what the app, can.