Plugged-in Kids Losing Quality Family Time and Empathy

by | May 20, 2012 | Internet, Online Safety, Parenting

The unique challenges and the solutions for parenting today’s digital kids

REALITY CHECK: Reports reveal new concerns about today’s “plugged-in” kids and how technology may rob them of face-to-face interaction, jeopardize empathy, social skills and communication development as well as crucial family time. 

Let’s face it, technology is transforming our kids’ lives. Digital media is no longer a luxury but a mainstream in our children’s  lives.But the key question is what affect will all that plugged-in time have on our children’s development?   After all, this is the first group born into the era of iPods, iPads, cell phones, text messaging, skype, podcasts, and blogs. They’re even called the “Net Generation,” and they are clearly plugging in.

The average American eight to 18 year-old is now plugged into some kind of digital media seven-and a half hours a day.

Reports show that youth online time is steadily increasing by 38 percent in just five years.

The truth is our children’s engagement in the digital world is so new  that researchers are still unclear as to how it will play out. That uncertainty is the reason we need to tune in closer: reports reveal a potential kid developmental danger that we may be overlooked when it comes to parenting today’s Net Generation.

Overlooked developmental dangers for our “Gen Net”

I recently shared a report on the TODAY Show by the which revealed a troubling new downslide to our children’s technology use. The report showed that parents are beginning to recognize that our family’s plugged time is reducing children’s face-to-face interaction with us as well as cutting into quality family time. Those findings have child experts in “alarm mode” for good reason.

What’s potentially at stake could be serious including: the diminishment of the strength of our bond with our sons and daughters, the loss of strong family relationships, rituals, memories, and interactions, and stunted development of our children’s empathy and social skills.

Research also confirms that the more time kids plug in, the greater likelihood they will have a lower attachment or relationship with their parents.

It’s a simple equation: “Less face to face time with us adds up to our kids having less time to tune into our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, values, and actions.”

Think about how that equation could affect not our influence and the strength of our relationship with our children, but also the development of emotional intelligence skills and character traits. The fact is kids don’t learn crucial life and character skills such as empathy, communication, emotional intelligence, respect, sharing, friendship-making, leadership, social skills, conflict resolution, listening, compassion, tolerance–the list goes on but I think you get my drift–by facing those screens or having earphones jammed in. While a digital world may enhance our children’s cognitive growth, it does little to affect their moral, social and emotional development. And do beware: a parent-child relationship cannot be strengthened when a child or parent is plugged in or attached to a digital device.

Keep this is mind: It’s not what are kids are plugging into, but what they are tuning out of that is the real overlooked danger in our children’s development.

If the answer is that our kids are plugging out of family and friends, then beware! Our children’s moral, social, emotional growth may be not only shortchanged, but at risk.

Your parenting goal is to ensure that you are the primary influence and filter in your child’s life. While there are dangers in a too plugged-in world, there also are solutions to ensure family interactions aren’t jeopardized.


Boosting Family Face Time in a Digital World

I recently chatted on the TODAY show with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb about the challenges of parenting kids in our digital world. Here are tips I shared to strengthen your family’s face-to-face interaction, manage your time together, and ensure that your child’s social and moral development aren’t affected–despite the digital world.

Stay educated about your child’s digital world

Stirring new book by MIT professor warns of the overuse of technology and urges us to “unplug”

Keeping abreast with what is new in technology and what our kids are into will certainly increase our chances of raising our Net Generation so they grow to be physically and emotionally healthy as well as web savvy. Here are just a few ways:

• Read the directions on each new digital purchase

• Have discussions with other parents about our children’s digital world

• Attend workshops offered by your child’s school or the local police department

• Assess reports about the digital world in the news or online regularly

• Ask your kids to teach you how to use the new digital device

• Sit down and watch or play that computer game with your child so you know what your child is watching or playing

• Learn to use what your child is using

• Be where your child is both online and off

Get into your child’s digital world!

Connecting with your kids via their favored technology (such as I-ming, texting or  talking via cell) allows you to stay in their world while nurturing your relationship. Kids are always more open to our involvement when we enter their world instead of insisting that they joins ours. So be where your kids are online. Get into their digital world!

Play the video game with your child.

Ask your child to teach you to text.

Skype as a family with the grandparents.

Watch a favorite TV show together.

Then don’t forget to turn and chat about what you’re doing while you’re plugged together! Plugging in with our kids can be a fabulous way to strengthen our relationship!

Take a reality check of your family’s current plugged-in habits

Wii console and family

Over the next few days do an informal reality check of your family. Note the extent each family member is currently “plugged in” and to which type of technology (computer, video games, ipod, television). Add up those minutes. Don’t let that plugged in time rob your family time.

Some families set a post-it on each technology outlet to serve as an informal time card to jot the time the device was turned on and off.

Identify those ideal times during the day such as the dinner hour, for face-to-face interactions. Is technology hindering those moments?  For instance: Are kids watching TV instead of tuning into dad? Are they texting instead of listening to the bedtime story?

Also check your family’s cell phones, texts and tweet logs. Add up the minutes. How much time is your family plugged in?

Do you need to reduce  time or certain digital devices? If so, which ones and what time?

Create “sacred” unplugged times

Set specific times to remain “unplugged.” Ask your kids for input. Prime family times might be family meal, those fire-side discussions, family meeting, or at an outing which involves other family members.

The aim is to strike a balance between plugged and unplugged that works for your family.

Then announce those “sacred times.”

The 3 T Rule: Set a family rule: “No Texting, Taping or Talking” (on cell) during our family times. Extend that rule to also include: “Whenever a human being is in your presence and wants to chat.”

Turn off your cell!

Make sure you follow your own digital rules. Kids say that family meals, school activities, sporting events and after school (pick up and welcoming connectors) are times when they are most bothered by their parents’ networking behaviors. Turn off your cell phone during those times! Model the behavior you want your kids to copy. Set the example that your kids are more important than that call coming in.

Don’t be media-lenient

Studies show that children whose parents set clear technology rules spend less time with media than peers. In fact only 52% of 8-18 year olds say their parents set rules about what they’re allowed to do on computer. Here are the findings. How do you think your family would fare?

 Survey: Parents Set Too Few Media Rules

Relatively few 7-12th graders say their parents establish any rules about talking or texting on a cell phone

27% of tweens/teens have family rules about amount of time they can spend talking on the phone

14% of tweens/teen say they have rules about the number of texts allowed to send


Reduce technology distractions during family time

Don’t let technology replace you! Watch for key times when you want your family to focus in on each other. For instance:

Don’t put a TV in your kids’ bedrooms where they can retreat from family life. Kids with a TV in their bedrooms spend an average of almost 1.5 hours more per day away from their family.

Turn on your phone’s answering machine during sacred family times like at dinner time.

Leave the computer in a central family spot where you can connect with your kids even for a short backrub.

Let the off-switch work to create quality family interactions.

Turn off your TV when you’re not watching-especially during family meals. Sixty-four percent of 8-18 year olds surveyed say the TV is usually on during family meals. Research finds that leaving the TV on when unwatched is a communication barrier-especially to younger kids or children who are more easily distracted.  [Kaiser Family Foundation]

Focus on face-to-face interaction

One-on one communication enhances the parent-child relationship, boosts communication and allows parents to model those essential interpersonal social and emotional skills our tech-dependent kids so desperately need.

To help encourage eye contact, face-to-face interaction and tuning into one another enforce one family rule: “Always look at the color of the talker’s eye.”

Take time for those crucial informal chats! Discussion topics are endless if you’re needing some. A big hint: use your children’s world. For instance:

Clip interesting articles from the newspaper.

Discuss the new movie reviews.

Debate who is going to win that big game or the election (and who really should).

Go online and peruse your kids’ school website to chat about those upcoming activities.

Add friends to your kids’ schedule

Friends do play an important role in our children’s social and emotional development. They are also crucial to our children’s self-esteem and the development of social skills.

Check your child’s calendar and make sure “be with friend” is added to the agenda.

When your child is with a pal, make it an “unplugged play date” so your child has the opportunity to practice those essential friendship-making skills.

Stress “WE” vs “Me”

Find ways for your family—and particularly your child – to do community service and empathize others not themselves. Work at a shelter. Deliver gently-used possession to charity. Pitch in together to help the elderly neighbor rake her leaves. Also point out other people’s feelings And ask often: How does the other person feel? All are important ways to help your child start focusing on the feelings of others.

Make sure your kids plug into you!

There is no doubt that technology will help shape our children’s attitudes, behaviors and character, but remember:

Fifty years of solid child development research confirms that the most powerful source of psychological impact on children are the strength of their relationship with their parents.

When it comes to building bonds with our children there are no shortcuts or computer programs: it’s only  achieved by applying that timeless, unplugged, good ol parenting strategy of quality face-to-face communication with our kids. 


Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba


General M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study: January 2010  [V. J. Rideout, U.G. Foehr, D.F. Roberts]

Rosalina Richards U. Ptago, Dunedin, NY: Study of 3043 adolescents: More screen time have lower-quality relationships. The risk of having low attachment to parents increased 4% for every hour spent viewing television and 5% for every our spent playing on a computer