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Szymanski: Put the phones down, have dinner together and talk to each other

Today, kids communicate with their devices more than they do with their parents and siblings. Technology is quickly changing every aspect of the world we live in, and I’m not so sure it is all for the better, writes columnist Lois Szymanski.
Today, kids communicate with their devices more than they do with their parents and siblings. Technology is quickly changing every aspect of the world we live in, and I’m not so sure it is all for the better, writes columnist Lois Szymanski. (Dreamstime / TNS)

While out to dinner in Westminster with my husband last weekend, we observed a family of five at the dinner table. Mom and Dad were both on their phones. Two children around the ages of 7 and 9 were playing games on electronic tablets, while a smaller munchkin in a high chair next to the table fidgeted, babbled and attempted to get someone’s attention. Anyone!

Even though I rely on my laptop every single day and my phone can’t be far out of reach, watching this family made me sad. I thought back to the lively conversations we had at the dinner table when our kids were small. I remembered the first time our daughter, Ashley ordered her own eggs at a breakfast out.

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“How would you like them cooked?” the waitress asked, and without hesitation she answered. “I’d like them oh greasy.” How we laughed. All those years she had thought, “Over easy,” was “oh greasy”! I felt sad that the family across the aisle from us would never experience a moment like that.

Today, kids communicate with their devices more than they do with their parents and siblings. Technology is quickly changing every aspect of the world we live in, and I’m not so sure it is all for the better. How we work, how we communicate and socialize and everything in between is influenced by the devices we carry around with us.

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In an article in the December issue of “Psychology Today,” author Jim Taylor, PhD said, “We have neither the benefit of historical hindsight nor the time to ponder or examine the value and cost of these advancements in terms of how it influences our children’s ability to think.” Indeed!

Nikki said Claire is there each weekday and on the weekends that her husband is not home. She never asks for a dime in payment and refuses money when it’s offered. She’s cleaned stalls, picked up the fields, and she waters and feeds Cash. Claire says that is the way it should be.

Technology writer, Nicholas Carr spoke of how the emergence of reading once encouraged our brains to be focused and imaginative. Now, internet-based reading has strengthened our ability to scan information rapidly and efficiently. Still, studies show that reading uninterrupted text results in faster completion and better understanding and recall of what we have read, while reading text filled with hyperlinks and ads makes it harder to comprehend and retain information.

Many schools now issue tablets for homework and point to laptops in libraries. Gadgets have trickled into every aspect of our kids’ lives, even how they play and interact. Instead of playing kick the can or stickball in the backyard, kids are immersed online in games like Minecraft and Fortnight. Without exercise, child obesity rates are rising and without outside play, exposure to sunlight is limited. Sunshine supplies the body with Vitamin D, which helps us fight infection and keeps our skin healthy when not overexposed.

In addition, research shows exposure to electronic devices like tablets and smart phones can cause sleep issues. The blue light emitted can suppress the body’s production of melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. It can also cause headaches and eyestrain, and all of that adds up to falling grades.

An article on the website HealthyChildren.org shares the reasons children need more one on one communication with family. “Very young children learn best through two-way communication,” it reads. “Engaging in back-and-forth ‘talk time’ is critical for language development. Research has shown that it's that ‘back-and-forth conversation’ that improves language skills, much more so than passive listening or one-way interaction with a screen.”

Through my work at the Marriage and Relationship Education Center, I’ve read studies on the importance of the interactions that happen at family meal time. This is how a child begins to develop social skills. It is an opportunity for them to share the best and the worst parts of their day and to download their troubles and let parents know what is bothering them.

In 2016, Common Sense — an advocacy and education group for parents — paid to run sports-themed ads on television during the Olympics. These ads challenged families to put devices away at dinnertime, to stay off their phones, and to talk to one another. Michael Robb, director of research at Common Sense shared how the family dinner offers conversation and personal connections.

Studies show us that family dinners make kids less likely to act out or to abuse drugs or alcohol. The Center on Addiction cited a study by CASAColumbia — the same group that brings us CASA Family Day (www.casafamilyday.org). The study surveyed thousands of American teens and their parents to identify what increases the risk of teen substance abuse.

“What we have learned is that parental engagement in children’s lives is fundamental to keeping children away from tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, and that parents have the greatest influence on whether their teens will choose not to use substances,” the article on the Center on Addiction website reads. “Our surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their smoking, drinking or using other drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children. Simply put: frequent family dinners make a big difference.”

To some, the picture of the family gathering around the table to eat with no phones, tablets or televisions may seem like a relic — something straight off the classic show “Leave it to Beaver.”

But family dinners are still happening today. And I’d bet if you follow home the kids who are doing well in school, you will see that many of them still have regular family dinners together.

In an age where teachers recommend homework apps and dating frequently originates online, we have to find a balance, not only for ourselves, but for our children. I look back to when my children were young, and I realize there were times when — exhausted and needing to get a project finished — I would turn on a special television show to engage the kids.

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It worked, but was it the best thing? If it was hard for me to resist back then, I can’t imagine how hard it is for parents to resist today. Tablets, televisions and phones are pacifiers for children. But shouldn’t they be developing better ways to manage boredom, to solve problems, and to calm emotions?

I wouldn’t want to be the parent of a young child today. Technology is that necessary evil. Our kids must have technology in their lives, yet it cannot become their entire life. I challenge you to sit down today for a family meal together, one where everyone must put their devices down.

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