Scary, Crazy and Clueless

By Clare Samworth
Yes, that’s how our kids describe us, according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age and featured speaker in a packed Ketchum Hall on April 8.
Instead of dishing out advice on managing our kids’ screen time, she completely turned the tables and shared some hard-hitting evidence about how our own screen habits are undermining the fabric of our family lives. With the average adult picking up their phone between 20 and 200 times a day, “digital disruption” is placing a barrier between us and our children. We have lost important boundaries that used to protect our families from our work lives and now we are always “just checking” when we access our devices in the car and at home (with an astonishing number even in the bathroom). 

Picking up a device is contagious and the second we do it, we shut out others both mentally and physically. Steiner-Adair’s extensive research with kids shows they feel they just cannot get our attention anymore. The adjectives consistently used to describe their emotions are sad, mad, angry, lonely and frustrated. They feel like they don’t matter. Even a four-month-old can detect digital distraction in the face of a parent. Yes, we are clueless indeed. 

Do you talk or text while driving when your child is in the car? “This is work”, “I’m an expert driver”, “Don’t tell your mother” and “Tell me when the light changes” is what our kids hear and the behaviour that we model for them. Taking calls in the car isolates your child and exposes them to potentially inappropriate conversations and language: f-bombs, arguments and aggressive talk. It’s no wonder they want to crawl into an electronic bubble of their own. Do you text your son during the school day? If so, you are causing him anxiety, distracting him from his work and getting him in trouble for using his phone.

I learned a new word that I wish I hadn’t: gornography. Look it up. By 12 years old, one third of Canadian boys have seen porn online and 80% of it involves violence against women. But it’s a discussion we need to have openly and calmly with our boys focusing on the love and respect that is an integral part of healthy sexuality. Hold the over-reactions and judging because all it does is push them away and promote a culture of humiliation. Scary and crazy.

In her book, Steiner-Adair offers practical advice on how to be the parent we all strive for: approachable, calm, informed and realistic. It is “An unsettling but necessary book”, according to the NY Times Book Review, but one that will help us build a “sustainable family”. The key is to model the behaviour we expect in our kids: put our phones away and talk face to face. Show that it’s ok to be vulnerable or unsure, and to ask for help. Get their input on a problem you faced at work. The easiest tip of all? Wait until Grade 8 before giving your child a smartphone.