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Families who tech together, stay together

By: Mr. Dad

Raise the issue of how communication has changed over the years, and just about everyone older than 25 or 30 will nod wistfully, recalling the good old days when people sat down across from each other and had actual conversations. Younger people, however, probably won’t hear you because they’re too absorbed in whatever’s happening on their smartphone. But if you think that technology has destroyed communication and isolated us, you’d better think again.

A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 95% of families with children have multiple communication devices. Sounds a little scary, but while the adults in those families say they’re somewhat less likely to have dinner together, the overwhelming majority said that all that technology either allows their family to be as close (60%), or closer (25%), than their family was when they were growing up. Only 11% say that technology has made their family less close.

This doesn’t even count military families. When one or both parents are deployed—which is usually for months at a time—email, phone calls, texting, and video conferencing often provide the only opportunity for the whole family to stay connected. While I was researching my book, The Military Father, I heard a number of stories of dads who had used Skype to “attend” parent-teacher conferences or “be there” for the birth of their baby.

As a single dad with two grown children who live across the country and a third who spends half her time with her mother, technology is an absolute must-have. The older kids can reach me day or night when they need a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, some year-end tax help, a loan, or someone to tell about a new job. And on days when she’s not with me, my youngest and I can have long email- and text-conversations about homework, long after she’s supposed to have gone to bed.

Computers: It Ain’t Over Yet

As cellphone ownership has gradually grown to near-saturation levels (98% of adults 18-29 have one, including over 86% who have a smartphone), usage of other tech devices (e-readers, game consoles, music players, etc.) has flattened out. For that reason, a lot of people have been predicting that desktop- and laptop- computers will go the way of the Stegosaurus. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the computer have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, among all adults, computer ownership is pretty close to what it was 10 years ago, at around 75%. In families with kids, that number goes north of 90%.

Laptops have been making something of a comeback in schools, where kids are expected to use them to take notes in class, do research, complete their homework and other projects, and turn them in on line. Smartphones are okay for checking assignments, but tablets (which about 50% of families own) generally don’t have the computing power or the memory to do the job.

I personally own and use four different laptops. But my absolute favorite, particularly when I’m working in bed or traveling, is my Acer Aspire One, which I bought way back in 2010. Over the years, it’s been dropped, sat on, spilled on, kicked, and abused in any number of other ways, and it’s still kicking—I use it almost every day for email, writing, Internet research, and editing my radio show and podcast. In an act of true selflessness, I offered it to my middle schooler as a replacement for the behemoth she schlepps to school and back every day. But even though the size and weight are perfect for her, she’s holding out for something newer, or fancier or both. I get it—she’s a cool middle school girl and has an image to maintain. Fortunately, prices on the new models are quite reasonable, so it’s looking a lot like we’ll soon be a multi-Acer family.

Making Tech Work for You and Yours

It’s very easy for people to complain about how we’re all falling victim to tech overload. And it’s very easy to suggest that we give up some of our devices and go back to simpler times. Sorry, not going to happen. Tech is here to stay, and it’s a waste of time to fight it. But you can manage it. Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts that will help.

  • Do use limits. Most cell carriers and internet providers allow you to cut off cell data after a certain point, limit the number of calls or texts, or turn off the phone or Internet during certain hours.
  • Do use tech to coordinate schedules and for quick check-ins. Shareable apps like Google Calendar are great for keeping everyone up to date on what’s happening. And texting is great for, “Got stuck in traffic, will be there in 10 minutes” or “Just saw this Ferrari and thought of you.”
  • Do use tech to “see” each other when you can’t physically be there. Business trips and military deployments are obvious, but what about when you’re stuck at the office and won’t be home ‘til after the kids go to bed? You can still read them a good-night story or help with homework. And with 60% of senior citizens on the Internet, tech is great for keeping in touch with far-away grandparents.
  • Do use social media to stay in touch with friends and family. Facebook, etc. You know the drill.
  • Do let your kids see you with a book once in a while. It’s good for you and good for them.
  • Do limit notifications. Do you really need to know every single time you get an email or a text, someone tags you on Facebook or Instagram, or a celebrity you follow sneezes? Really?
  • Do block out regular, tech-free family time. Kids who have regular, in-person family dinners have better relationships with their parents, do better in school, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, according to a study by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. You’ll have a lot more fun pushing your kid on a swing if you keep your phone in your pocket, plus, you’ll be less likely to get kicked in the nose while you’re checking your email.
  • Do make eye contact. Note the spelling: “eye contact,” as in those things you see with; not “iContact.” Without regular, tech-free face time, you may look at your kids one day and barely recognize them, since all you’ve seen for the past few weeks is the top of their head while they’re hunched over their phone or some other device.
  • Do have regular conversations. When I pick up my daughter after school, her first instinct is to turn on her phone and catch up on everything she missed because of the unjust, cruel school policy that forbids cellphone use on campus. But she knows that before the phone goes on, she needs to spend at least five minutes talking with me about her day, my day, or whatever else comes up. Most of the time we actually go longer than five minutes.
  • Do keep your phone in your pocket when you’re with other humans. Have you ever sat down to have a conversation with someone and one (or both) of you places his or her phone on the table? Seems pretty innocuous, but the message is pretty clear: “I going to pay attention to you for a while, but if something better comes along, I’ll dump you in a heartbeat.”
  • Don’t try to multi-task. No one knows exactly how many tech devices the average family owns, but it’s a lot. (Go ahead, count them—I’ll wait. Did you get your printer? Fitbit? X-box and Wii?) And because those devices are everywhere, a lot of us—kids and adults alike—think we can use two or more of them at the same time (reading email while talking on the phone, texting while doing homework, updating social media while doing almost anything else, etc.). But a number of studies have compared “heavy-media-multitaskers” with “light-media-multitaskers” and have found that people who do a lot of multitasking perform worse in just about every area. Their short-term and long-term memory are worse, they’re more likely to be distracted by irrelevant information, have trouble focusing their attention, are more impulsive, perform worse on academic tests, are less creative, and make worse decisions.
  • Don’t be that guy. Your kids are paying attention. If you tell them to limit their tech use but you text or talk on the phone while you’re driving, check your email during dinner, or miss part of the circus because you were too busy posting pics on social media (yes, I did that), they’ll do what you do, not what you say.

Disclosure: I received compensation from Acer, but I don’t write about anything I don’t believe in 100%--never have, never will. Plus, I bought my own Acer computer long before I ever connected with the brand.

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About the author:
Armin Brott, Mr. Dad

Hailed by Time Magazine as “the superdad’s superdad,” Armin Brott is a pioneer in the field of fatherhood and has been building better fathers for more than a decade. As the author of eight bestselling books on fatherhood, he’s helped millions of men around the world become the fathers they want to be—and that their children need them to be.

Armin has been a guest on hundreds of radio and television shows, including Today, CBS Overnight, Fox News, and Politically Incorrect, and his work on fatherhood has been featured in such places as Glamour, Time, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and many others. As a trusted spokesperson, Armin speaks on fatherhood around the country and teaches classes for expectant and new dads. Armin is a father of three and lives in Oakland, CA.