The Big Disconnect: Tech, Kids, and Families

The Big Disconnect: Tech, Kids, and Families

I can remember being rewarded with a lollipop for behaving myself in the dentist’s chair before scientists discovered the causal link between sugar, plaque, and tooth decay.  I can remember when it was so cool to smoke cigarettes, before scientists discovered the causal links between smoking and lung cancer and teeth falling out of our mouths.

These days we seem to be as hooked on our screens as anyone ever was on sugar or nicotine – the average American adult checks their cellphone every 6.5 minutes; children ages 8-18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day, every day, on electronic devices, more time than any other activity except sleeping (maybe even more than sleeping). 25% of teenagers reach for their phones within 5 minutes of waking up.  More young children know how to download an app than how to tie their shoes.  Even 2 year olds play with screens in their strollers.   

The causal links to diminished functioning of attention and relational skills are not yet proven, but the data are coming in, not good news, and no joke.  The more time people, especially young people, spend on their devices – texting, emailing, posting, surfing, on their smart phones, computers, iPads, the more diminished their capacities to focus attention for long periods of time (3-4 minutes, let alone 3-4 hours).  They exhibit less tolerance of “messy” emotions and relating face-to-face, thus diminishing capacities of empathy, or even understanding the value of empathy.  They show less interest in the solitude and self-reflection so necessary for the brain’s integration of coping with difficult experiences.

I led my first workshop last week on “Recovering from Digital Addiction: Helping Clients Re-Discover Real Life” for the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C., a dialogue among mental health professionals from all over the country deeply concerned about the erosion of capacities for deep, meaningful, loving connection among couples and families because of the seductive distraction of “connectivity” through our devices.

My own thinking was guided throughout that workshop by the very balanced and thoroughly researched  perspective of Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist, child and family therapist, and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. This newsletter highlights some of the research and wisdom of The Big Disconnect with some practical suggestions of how people can re-connect with those they love and want to remain close to.

[P.S.  I have posted almost 100 monthly 20-page newsletters over the last 8 years; perhaps because of the topic of quick tech v. deep exploration, I’m honestly wondering how many readers will have the time and patience to peruse and ponder the wisdom offered here.  Our attention spans and bandwidths are steadily shrinking; deep bows to all who choose to learn and change their lives the old-fashioned way, by reading, contemplating, integrating.]

May these reflections and tools be useful to you and yours.


The Big Disconnect begins with this story that captures the shift that technology has made in parenting and childhood:

“Sally, the mother of four school-age children, comes to a parent coffee I’m facilitating.  She is at her wit’s end and goes on to describe a domestic scene from the night before.  She had been folding laundry while keeping an eye on her children – ages four, eight, eleven, and fifteen – immersed in their various activities in the adjoining family room.  Their family room is off the laundry nook but not quite visible, so Sally was multitasking, folding clothes and checking her email on her smartphone, as many of us do, alternately stepping in and out of the family room for a few moments at a time to keep an eye on the kids. 

“Finally she needed a solid five minutes to search for socks without partners, and she asked the two older children to keep watch on their four-year-old brother. The fifteen year old was on her iPad, and the eleven and eight year old brothers were playing a two-player racing game on the Wii.  The four-year-old was romping around them as four-year-olds do.  As usual, the older siblings nodded their agreement without looking up.  Yes, they indicated, got it. So mom left them all together and took the laundry upstairs, tending to a few emails while there. 

“When she popped back into the room five minutes later everyone was precisely as they has been – except the four-year-old.  He was putting the flourishes on a colorful wide-tipped purple Magic Marker trail that looped and snaked across the hardwood floor and beautiful wood cabinetry, weaving throughout the entire room.  It was Harold and the Purple Crayon come to life.

“When Sally saw this she went ballistic, she tells me.  “How could you let him do that?!” she shrieked at her older children  And in that nanosecond before her children could even look up to see what she was talking about, she saw the answer to her question.  All three of them were so transfixed in the screen activities that they hadn’t noticed the four-year-old running wild, decorating the floor and walls. This might just a easily have occurred if they’d had the TV on or if they’d had their noses buried in a book, reading the afternoon away like generations before them.  But in that instant Sally saw something more worrisome, felt something deeper and more ominous. 

“First, she realized that when she had turned her attention to email, however briefly, her intuitive “third eye” – the parental antenna – had instantly lost its signal.  Honestly, she’d lost track of time, too; had it really been “just five minutes” or had it stretched beyond that?  She had no idea; it was as if she’d been lost in another world.  And then there was the specter of her three older children, each lost in a mind meld with screens.  “I know this could have happened without the iPad or the Wii,” she says, “but I feel there’s something about those screens that sucks my children away from me.  Something that I don’t think watching The Brady Bunch did to me and my siblings when we were growing up.”

The Big Disconnect is extremely well-written, with many stories to illustrate the problems people have relating to each other in the digital age, and much good research to back up the explorations of why. Here are two more stories contrasting the opportunities and the dangers of the pre-dominance of tech in families’ lives:

1) “Ten-year-old Karl enjoys frequent visits with his grandmother in Finland – via Skype – and this New York boy is growing up bilingual, speaking Finnish.  He is ecstatic when Malle comes to visit in person once a year, and their screen time in between is imbued with the loving relationship they share.  When his family visits Finland, he plays readily with his cousins, all the easier because they are so familiar to him from Skyping.

“At its best, tech can reinforce what it means to be family, watching shows or going online together at home, as well as in the sense, as with Karl, that we are family and we stay in touch wherever we are.  There is nothing like doting grandparents or an aunt or older cousin showing up on the screen and just lovin’ you up.  Many parents, when they travel and leave the kids at home, use Skype or other video chat platforms to read to them at bedtime or touch base before the school day begins.  Tech is fantastic for this.”

2)  “Trevor [fictionalized name] was on spring break, enjoying all the things a ten-year-old boy does, when he checked his email and found an odd one waiting for him.  It was from nurfmadnessXYZ. 

“I just thought it was random – you know, spam – or a joke,” he says.  “I didn’t tell anybody.  I just deleted it right away.”

”About a month went by and he had forgotten all about it, when two more e-mails popped up one day from the same address.  This time nurfmadnessXYZ made explicit taunts about his genitalia along with calling him “a fucking asshole.”

“That’s when I started to believe that someone was trying to make me feel as bad as they could,” Trevor says.  “I got really freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.  I mean, the first time I didn’t respond because I thought it was random and that was what everybody said to do.  But now it was persistent.  I started pacing my room trying to think of what to do.  For about five minutes I was just trying to pull myself together, and then I thought I should really tell my parents.”

“His parents shared the e-mails with the school principal.  They tapped the student grapevine and within a week found nurfmadnessXYZ, a ten-year-old girl who had been nursing a grudge against Trevor for more than a year since he had openly ridiculed her loose grammar on the bus a few times.  She had talked to friends about ‘horrible things to do to him,” her friends reported later, but none of them every thought she would do anything.  What she did do eventually was sign onto a friend’s e-mail account to send the sexually harassing e-mails.

“When I found out I sort of broke down, like in a movie when the main character just breaks down and everything is in slow motion, that’s what it felt like to me,” Trevor tells me the day he comes with his mother for our first session.  He is struggling with anger and depression.

“It has been a year since that last e-mail and the whodunit disclosure that followed, which became the subject of hushed conversations among students and the school community.  Secrets are hard to keep at school and in an online universe.  The girl was suspended for several days and when she returned she was told to steer clear of Trevor.  But her clique of friends rallied around her and school for her is fundamentally unaltered.  Trevor, on the other hand, continues to suffer.  He has been alternately angry, uneasy, and unfocused at school since it happened.  His good grades have dropped; he used to love going to school, now he hates it.   Every time he checks his email, he looks first for the name he doesn’t want to see there with the haunting sense of ick.  For Trevor, that the girl keeps her distance at school doesn’t change the fact that for all he knows, the nasty conversation about him may continue forever in cyberspace.  Sexual harassment via e-mail would be disturbing to most adults.  It is nothing Trevor or his parents were prepared for in the life of a ten-year-old child.”

Dr. Steiner-Adair keeps the scales of the costs and benefits of our digital revolution fairly evenly balanced through The Big Disconnect, even while staying very focused on the power of strong, healthy family connections and communications to help kids grow up into a healthy sense of themselves and their family.

You can get a sense of the gist of the book even from chapter titles and sub-headings such as:

What Children See: Parents Missing in Action

You versus U: Why Your Child Needs the Real Thing

What’s @ Stake as Peers and Pop Culture Delete Parents

Empathy is the Missing “E” in Our E-Culture

Tech Goes Faster than the Speed of Life

The Gender Code Starts Younger, Sexier, and More Aggressive than Ever

Texting Pushes the Mute Button on Emotional Nuance

Facebook or Fakebook: Image, Identity, and the Empty Obsession with Presentation

Dr. Steiner-Adair offers at least three guiding principles throughout the book:

Healthy family interactions are essential for nurturing a child’s healthy sense of self, as well as belonging, connection, and well-being

The essential role that person-to-person, face-to-face experiences in families play in brain development, character development, and building a reliable inner secure base of resilience in growing up, from birth to launch. Decades of research in developmental psychology and attachment theory prove that “beyond irrefutability,” even before the introduction of digital technology into the mix. That remains true even with our current high divorce rates and the economic pressures that often require both parents to work outside the home.  Children need to interact with their parents to become who they are.

“Our children watch us at home, on our cell phones, and at every other opportunity, for cues to help them navigate life.  As parents, our relationship with tech and our patterns of behavior around it become a training ground for these impressionable youngsters as they forge their own relationships with tech.  It is all too easy for us to complain when our children favor screen diversions and ignore us, when that is what we teach them by example.”

The essential role parents play in guiding their children’s use of and exposure to technology.

Easy access to the online world means kids are exposed to the pressures of the adult world (and sometimes the stereotyping and prejudices, violence or sexualization of that world), in greater amounts and with more intensity, at younger and younger ages, long before they are developmentally prepared to handle it.

“However sophisticated our children may seem in this tech-driven culture, their street savvy is deceptively naïve.  Still on the learning curve in their interface with the adult world and in so many ways in relationships, their capacity to connect through tech often outstrips their capacity to manage the emotional voltage it can deliver.  Or to recognize the potential danger of exposing themselves to others who would us social networking to do them harm.

“Families play an essential role in “protecting childhood,” including protecting time and focus for play, imagination, creativity, nature that can too easily be eclipsed by the seductive stimulation of our devices.  Parents need to show up, be responsible, take charge of the environment in the home, creating structure and enforcing rules that guide the child’s use of and exposure to the addicting pull of technology, not giving in because they don’t want to fight with the child or abdicating with the excuses of “Oh, it won’t really do any harm.” Or “What can I do?  Everyone else is doing it?”

The essential job of parenting: to provide the environment and activities beyond technology that will promote safety and growth for growing children.

“Unstructured, unplugged play is the best way for children to learn to think creatively, to problem solves, and to develop reasoning, communication, and motor skills, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ extensive review of three decades of research. 

“Yes, computer games can connect children with their peers, promote social interaction, create opportunities for strategic thinking, teach collaborative play, as well as develop the capacity to think quickly when solving problems.  But for every minute or hour your child spends on screens or other digital diversions, he or she is not engaged in healthful, unstructured, creative play.  They are not outside with other kids, taking in the day, relaxing and chatting, inventing games and interacting directly. They are not running around, shooting hoops, and skateboarding, developing coordination and physical strength.  They are not learning how to deal with the frustration of real forts crumbling and block towers falling, of having to rethink and start over again.”

“Children need to develop their capacity to engage in life.  That’s how they develop resilience and self-motivation.”

“This is necessary throughout childhood.  At every age, children use play and the realm of imagination to understand their selves and the world, to integrate learning, process conflict and loss, to replay again and again moments of anguish or joy.  Eventually with that comes a capacity to think more deeply, to reflect, and to muse. If you give them too many programmed games or if they become addicted to playing on screens, children will not know how to move through that fugue state they call boredom, which is often a necessary prelude to creativity.  They are not alone with themselves, learning to be comfortable with solitude, with their own thoughts, with no alternative but the let their mind wander and drift, explore, discover, feel.  The capacity to fall in love with a subject or a sport or an instrument begins with the capacity to cultivate a deep connection, a drive that comes from the inner self.”

Dr. Steiner-Adair elaborates on all of these principles chapter by chapter, age group by age group.

I’ve focused here on the impact of digital technology on brain development and on the development of the social-emotional intelligence we need to relate skillfully to others, because those two areas are crucial to strengthening (or derailing) resilience and well-being down the line.  I don’t begin to touch on the online marketing industry that aims its billions of dollars toward the youngest of consumers, but Dr. Steiner-Adair does, and it certainly gives one pause.

Very over-simplified highlights:

Ages 0-2

“The consensus of medical, scientific, psychological experts is to leave tech out of your baby’s life for the first 24 months. Fresh to life, open to your imprint, your infant watches and listens for your face, your voice your touch, your gaze. Tech offers nothing your baby needs more than you.  Simple interactions – nursing, soothing, bathing, diapering, singing, strolling, reading, and playing – provide all a baby needs to lay the foundation for the next levels of cognitive development at three, four, and five years old, and for all their future learning.

“Tremendous brain growth occurs in the first two years of life, more dramatic than at any other age.  During this time the baby’s brain is busily building structural and functional connectivity, creating the essential neuro-architecture to support life and learning. Too much tech before age two shortchanges a young child on the time and mix of experiences the sensorium – the collective capacities of the brain to receive, process, and interpret sensory information – needs for well-rounded development.  The brain was designed to develop in all areas through natural human interactions and play, and by putting kids in front of screens we are changing their brains.” 

“Neural pathways and networks for reading take years to develop.  The time spent talking and reading with a child acts on many levels to strengthen those neural pathways.  Tech interrupts or weakens that connection.”

“The baby brain comes hardwired for human relationship because that is the most essential connection for survival and all future learning.  And the single most important relationship is the one your baby finds with you.  The first and continuing lesson your infant learns from you is that she exists – Oh, someone recognizes me, I am a being in the universe, there is something worthy about me – someone is noticing and paying attention to me!

Consider what happens when you add a cell phone to that picture that interrupts your attention or captures it completely.  What does it mean when you use screens and apps as a pacifier for your baby or toddler, or when you use them yourself to distract or pacify yourself to relieve the stress and tedium of your parenting time?  Studies show that babies are distressed by the expressionless face we adopt when we stare down at a text or stare into a screen as we go online.  More recent studies using brain imaging scans on infants show that brain centers critical for higher order learning and language development “light up” when a mother is present and fully engaged as she speaks to her baby.  When the mother’s proximity changes, the brain’s response changes, too.”

Ages 3-5

“Children ages three to five integrate everything they are learning from life through their imaginative play.  They play doctor, they play house, they play heroes and villains.   Children learn by touching and not just by passively clicking a mouse. Not just pushing buttons on a screen, playing dress-up means digging through the box for something you like, one shoe, then another, or maybe not and in that moment experience a pang of disappointment and rather than give up, figure out an alternative to resolve your unhappiness.  All the while you’re making up a story to go with it; you may start out as a princess but then you find the wizard hat and suddenly you decide to become a sorcerer.

“You might play dress up with a friend, you would pick up one another’s facial cures and body language expressing opinions and feelings about the play in progress and eventually whether to keep playing or call it quits and move on to something else.  Handling things and fitting them together, changing in and out of clothing and imaginary scenarios, negotiating with a friend, parading around in your creation and imagining yourself as different than yourself, You might argue and find out just how far you can boss a friend around before it spoils a good time. Tattling to your mom and feeling heard, all those little movements and thought-filled moments develop your sense of self and your relationship with the things and people around you. 

“All these iterations stretch creativity and develop imagination.  They deepen your capacity to learn and to keep learning, taking you on to new developmental challenges and growth.  The screen experience lacks the human interaction with other children and adults, the one-to-one response, eye contact, facial expression voice and tone.  There’s not room for language to expand or for children to deal with their feelings in technology.”

“The social and emotional toolkit your five-year-old has as she comes into kindergarten is much more important that whether she knows her way around a keypad or can recite her numbers and letters.  That little toolkit comes from everyday conversations, play, routine and rituals.  What media and tech do so much in the emotional lives of young children is to come between parent and child with those constant mini-moments of disconnect or distraction. 

“Children also begin to understand that life isn’t always easy; it can be sad and scary and hard. There’s illness; there’s shots.  There’s death. All sorts of stuff happens, but when left to their own imagination to understand these concepts, children are very good at pacing themselves, taking in as much information as they can handle.”

Ages 5-10

“Childhood has never been as simple as nostalgia portrays it, but the years from five to ten do represent a significant developmental transition that ushers a child from a protective home base into the larger world of school and society.  Erik Erikson observed that at this age a child’s “inner stage seems all set for entrance into life,” as off they go to school…And from that, some five or six years later emerges a preadolescent with the seeds of moral conscience, identity, empathy, and agency firmly planted.”

“Healthy cognitive, social, and emotional growth through this period continues to be grounded in hands-on play, curiosity, imagination and the layering of these experiences in the widening realms of family, school, and friendship.  Children are eager to explore new ideas. They want to develop mastery, often in line with an interest, be it ballet, bugs, or baseball.  They are open to new relationships in a widening social circle and with teachers. Technology is naturally enticing.  Children tend to be fearless tinkerers and navigators in a realm that stumps their parents. 

“However, even as they broaden their base of operations, they are still forming critical attachments to you, your family, friends, and community.  This is the time to build a strong foundation for family primacy and values, for self-discovery, and for children’s natural curiosity about the people and world that surround them.  Children need to develop their capacity to engage in life.  That’s how they develop resilience and self-motivation.”

“This is a critical time for moral development.  In these formative years from five to ten, kids are developmentally ready to grapple with issues of right and wrong, being accountable for their words and actions as they affect other people, and learning to reason on their own what it means to be a person of character.  They have the mental muscle to wrestle with tough questions of conscience.  With the infusion of computers, cell phones, and online activities at younger ages, elementary schools also now has become the training ground for people relating to each other through tech.  At a developmental time when children need to be learning how to effectively interact directly, the tech-mediated environment is not an adequate substitute for the human brain.”

Ages 6-10

“Traditionally and by nature, so much of child development from six to ten years of age is driven by children’s desire to connect with each other and the exciting world beyond; to fit in, stand out, look older, smarter, cooler.  If the computer has become the new playground for our children, then we must ask what they are playing, who they are meeting there, and what they are learning.

“It is certainly a faster crowd online than every graced a neighborhood playground  For all the good they can find there, other influences, from screen games and commercial pop-ups to YouTube, social media, and online erotica, introduce them to images and information they are not developmentally equipped to understand.  The combination of their innate eagerness to mimic what’s cool, and the R- to X-rated quality of the cool they see has collapsed childhood to the point that we see second-grader mimicking sexy teens and fourth-graders hanging out online with “friends” and gamers far older and more worldly.  Life for six- to ten-year-olds has taken on a pseudo-sophisticated zeitgeist far beyond the normal developmental readiness of the age.  Outwardly, that compression may seem superficial, but inwardly, many children experience a suffocating squeeze on developmental growth that is essential for these early school years.

Ages 11-13

“This age was challenging enough in the days when school dances and pizza parlor dates were the most exciting new thing on a pre-teen’s social agenda, the social getaways from parents where girls and boys braved the awkward encounters of curiosity, crushes, and social cruising.  Summer camps introduced the first coed dance.  Youth groups brought them together at church or temple.  These were tame, well-chaperoned, structured opportunities for boys and girls to hang out.  The kids were “pre” not yet teens – and their social interaction reflected that.  All of this was relatively manageable – for them and for parents.

“The Internet blew the gates off this holding tank and swept us all out to cyber sea, into a new Bermuda Triangle of tweens, screens, and no limits.  Now with laptops and smartphones, texting, sexting, and online social networking, we’ve lost all control, transforming what traditionally had been a defacto if unheralded rite of passage through a physical, social, emotional, and developmental metamorphosis into an online spectator sport.

“Tweens need our time, attention, and courage to discuss subjects that make us uncomfortable.  They need the kind of hanging out family time and conversation in which you and your tweens can talk about values love, flirting and hurting, civility and cruelty, and what constitutes crossing the line.  Your tweens really do want to understand how you see the world what matters to you, your values.  And they want to feel that you want to understand what matters to them.  They want to be able to bring all the identities they are trying on that day, without you overreacting or getting too preachy.  They need you to be curious and clear, to set limits and to be flexible.  It’s an in-between time for everyone.”

Ages 14-19

“Evolutionarily speaking it has always been adolescents’ job to join the dominant culture, so their rush for the border should came as no surprise. What has changed is that there is no longer any border, not even speed bumps slowing their entry into a dominant culture with destructive elements that can so swiftly overwhelm them.

“I hear the stories of video chats, where two or three girls are in one room, chatting away with another boy or two, full of that intoxicating false courage, and maybe a shot or two of vodka as well, and suddenly they are flashing each other, and then some.  This, with no clue whether anyone is recording it, or who else is in the room, or who will remember, record, or reveal what took place the next day or the next year.

“Tech is the perfect accomplice to their classic risk-taking behavior, putting them a mere mouse click away from disaster.  They can video-chat themselves into a dangerous multiplayer game of “truth or dare” only to discover that it has been recorded. They can arrange hookups with strangers, or steal your identify and pretend to be you online, or provide text or phone cover for friends who want out from under a parent’s watchful eye.  It’s all just that easy.

“This, perhaps more than any other single factor, has transformed teen life and teen risks so profoundly.  There is no app for emotional intimacy, no digital shortcut to the deep, rich knowing of another human being – or of ourselves in that context.  To the extent that texting and social media dominate a teen’s time and attention, he or she is missing the kinds of conversation and face-to-face interactions that develop the relational skills for friendship and emotional intimacy.

“The tech may be easy to use, but that doesn’t mean it makes the real work of adolescence any easier.  Online you can use Photoshop for identity formation.  In real life, it takes discovering who you are, whom you love, who loves, you, how to love, what you think, and who you want to become.  Then there is figuring out who you are in relationship to others and to yourself, nurturing self-acceptance and dealing with body image.  Photoshop isn’t up to that task.”

Dr. Steiner-Adair offers much guidance in The Big Disconnect about how to cultivate social-emotional skills in children of all ages.  She summarizes how tech can de-rail that learning in four major areas:

– An increasingly destructive gender code starts younger than ever

– Social cruelty has become in vogue and more intensive via social media

– Popular culture deletes childhood by normalizing violence, sexual exploitation and pornography, once adults-only domains

– The tech accessible to children far exceeds their capacity to manage their use of it or anticipate the consequences of their misuse.

One last reflection, relevant to the workshop on digital addiction I gave last week:

“We use the language of addiction to joke about our texting and online habits.  We compulsively check our “crackberry,” lament not-really-joking that we’re addicted to email, or complain that we need our YouTube or Face book “fix.”  We mean to step away from the screen and call it quits for the day, but we sit down for one last check of one last thing – and then one more.  We take our phones to bed.  We take them to the bathroom.  We know that texting while driving is as dangerous as driving while drunk and that texting while driving increases the risk of an accident by 50%, yet we do it anyway. We know that some aspects of tech are addictive and that different types of brains are more vulnerable than others. We joke, but the truth is that research shows we are in fact enjoying neurochemical hits and fixes – the neurotransmitter dopamine most notable – in the brain’s pleasure centers when we’re on our devices.  Talk of addiction is not hyperbole; it is a clinical reality in some users’ lives today.”


[all quotes from The Big Disconnect unless indicated otherwise]

Technology and the developing brain

The so-called downtime children spend on computers is neurologically, psychologically, and often emotionally action packed.  Stimulation, hyper-connectivity, and interactivity are, as the psychiatrist and creativity expert Gene Cohen put it, “like chocolate to the brain. We crave it.”

* * * * *

Playing video games triggers and doubles the amount of dopamine in the brain, roughly akin to a dose of speed. And when a child is engaged in violent-action video games, the part of the brain that experiences empathy disengages.

* * * * *

Neuroimaging suggests that when kids play violent video games, the medial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that allows us to balance our emotions, be empathetic, and make thoughtful decisions -becomes less active. And at the same time, the amygdala – the part of the brain that causes us to act before we think, be territorial, and reactive – becomes more active.  Keep in mind that repeated activation in the brain impacts how the brain is wired.  The brain develops what it gets practice doing.  The content matters, not just in terms of what kids’ eyes and minds are exposed to, but in terms of how the circuity of their brains gets activated and wired.”

– Tina Payne Bryson, co-author of The Whole Brain Child

* * * * *

Neurologically speaking, empathy takes time and practice to sink in. The neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes extensively about the tech effect on cognitive processes in the young brain in her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.  She explains that the speed and superficiality of the tech experience have thinned the neural experiences that create empathy.  In contrast, activities such as reading books or other substantive content create complex arrays of neural pathways, the necessary rich wave of interconnectedness that develops empathy and allows it to deepen.

* * * * *

The cool-to-be-cruel ethos undermines the development of empathy.  How do you think she feels? Is one of the most common refrains we repeat to children.  When you act from a distance or anonymously, you remove that critical piece of social and emotional learning – how to read the impact of your behavior on someone else.  This undermines not only the development of empathy but also f=of understanding and accountability.  Further, when someone delivers a cruel comment and then disappears off-line, the victim is left alone holding the injury with no way to shake it or respond back.  So much of what we learn from fighting with each other involves the ebb and flow of a fight, how you escalate and de-escalate, and what makes it better or worse. The shared experience is the meaningful learning experience.  In the push-send-sign-off world, kids don’t have to do that and they miss out on something very important.

* * * * *

Few things could be more enticing than the prospect of flipping a switch to keep a baby happy.  But when we give babies stimulants instead of calming attention and offer tech distractions from ordinary life instead of guidance through it, we teach them at a very young age to deal with life’s ups and downs by plugging into external sources to self-regulate rather than develop those skills within.  It is so hard for ordinary, real-life academic research to compete with the magic-wand offerings of marketing wizards.  Packaging on electronics for infants and toddlers should just honestly say, “This product may be hazardous to your baby’s brain, to cognitive, social, and emotional developments, and to early bonding, attachment, and attunement between parent and child.”  Until that day comes, you just have to say it to yourself – a spread the word.  We owe it to our children to be as informed, sensible, and protective as possible. 

Technology and Communication

‘When you have very busy lives, your relationships become completely utilitarian and nagging,” says a parent of two teenagers.  She rattles off the to-do list of deadlines and scheduling that dominates their conversations: homework, camp application deadlines, games, sports, concerts, practice, the family social calendar.  “It’s like we’re this little business, and we just interact, so if you want to have any kind of connection otherwise, you send the YouTube video, send the text….we never talk directly, we never look each other in the eye anymore.

* * * * *

Tech has altered our social discourse so rapidly that we’ve had not time to thoughtfully decide whether this is what we want.  Time-honored expressions of basic courtesy and civil conduct have simply disappeared.  Absent that thoughtful standard of established etiquette, it has become acceptable to have a highly personal conversation in a highly public space, at full volume, completely disregarding strangers next to us on the street, at the airport, or in a store.  Beyond the annoyance factor, in that digital context the other individuals around us are now irrelevant, dismissed, turned out.  We authorize ourselves, when on our phones, to behave in ways that were just a generation ago commonly held as discourteous, uncivilized.

* * * * *

Tech not only accelerates the speed of exchanges, it changes the way we express ourselves.  It can ramp up the emotional discharge, encouraging us to emote without accountability for the impact of our communication because we can’t see the other person’s face, nor the impact, and adjust our tone. The likelihood of misunderstanding grows without the more nuanced sensory feedback that a face-to-face conversation affords.

* * * * *

Texting, especially for teens, has become a substitute for direct, live conversation in a way unlike any other medium in history. Everyone agrees that texting is great for making plans, meeting up, last-minute changes, quick kudos or cybersmiles.  But for any meaningful conversation, a lot gets lost. Text is so often the antithesis of slow reflective thinking about one’s self and the other who will receive the message. It is a shallow language of inference, not insight, and certainly not intimacy. And the less practice teens get at face-to-face interaction over everyday things, communicating ideas and feelings in person, the less ready they are for relationships of greater emotional complexity.

The very things that texting eliminates are the lessons teens need to learn: how to calm yourself, express yourself clearly and respectfully, understand your impact on the other with empathy and not just with anger, read their physical and emotional cues as you listen to their side of it, and together figure out how to go forward, each accountable for your own behavior and its effect on the other.  Even if a teen was to communicate emotional nuance, the space constraints and rapid response cycles of texting as medium militate against it.  Text excuses you from dealing with the human complexity of communication.

* * * * *

If we are too busy to spend time with our kids, too busy to listen to them, or too intimidated or overwhelmed by tech to respond to them, an online world of “intimate strangers” or diversion is every ready to welcome them.  Tech is undeniably allowing us to connect in new and wondrous ways.  Unfortunately, in ways that matter it is often a model of connection that favors quantity over quality, breadth over depth, and image over intimacy.  The tech cultures is conditioning us to accept that as an unquestioned norm.  And it is training our children to think that way, too.

Technology and Relationships

The emotions of feeling like you don’t matter, feeling invisible or unloved, have certainly been around forever. But we’ve never had a lifestyle that made screen communications the priority and made it acceptable behavior to ignore others, or to accept when someone drops our conversation mid-sentence to turn to another.  Research confirms what we sense if true: the time we spend online or on electronic devices is eroding the time we spend with the people around us.

* * * * *

No matter how tech shapes and changes the world around us, one thing remains universal and unchanged: the connection that begins in the family shapes a child’s brain, mind, body and soul in uniquely human ways that tech cannot replace.  So much in this digital culture is beyond our control, but as the research shows, our locus of power as parents, educators, and advocates for children remains essentially unchanged and it resides in the space of our relationships with them.  Nothing can match the power of our attention and our capacity to connect in affirming, loving, nourishing ways.  Screens and tech cannot match it, but they can replace it – if we let it happen.

* * * * *

To parents, multitasking via screens and cells may seem a reasonable work-life compromise, a way to feel available to the children while still tending to work and other interests or commitments.  To children, the feeling is often one of endless frustration, fatigue, and loss, not compromise.  As soon as a parent bends down to look at a device, then they’re not in the same conversation; they’ve just gone into another world.  All of a sudden, you’ve just de-coupled from the person in front of you.

* * * * *

Parents’ chronic distraction can have deep and lasting effects on their children.  Psychologists know this from work with children who grow up with unavailable, disconnected, or narcissistic parents; they struggle and often don’t do very well.  In addition to the issue of distracted supervision putting children at risk for injury, at some point distracted, tech-centered parenting can look and feel to a child like having a narcissistic parent or an emotionally absent, psychologically neglectful one. 

Children can feel the disconnect. They can tell when their parent’s attention is on screens or calls and increasingly they are feeling that all the time.  It feels “bad and sad” to be ignored.  And they are tired of being the “call waiting” in their parents’ lives.  The word “hypocrite” comes up a lot of middle school and high school kids.  It is confusing when you know it is time to leave the house and your father is on his laptop or tablet or cell phone and gets mad at you for telling him that you will be late for school.  It is defeating when you try to do the right thing (get to school on time) and get in trouble at both ends (at home and at school.)  To a child, getting mixed messages from parents undermines trust and security.  Inconsistency undermines a sense of safety and stability.

A lot of the disappointment involves kids giving up. Little moments of promises broken, of feeling let down.  Dad was supposed to read with me.  Mom said she’d play a board game.  Teens offer an older version of the same yearning: I don’t see why Mom can’t just not take a call when we’re talking – she’s always telling me what I’m supposed to do.  I know Dad’s busy, but it’s like nothing I do is important enough to really matter to him.

Children don’t need us constantly, but they do need to experience our being there for them, genuinely connected with them, at times when our presence matters to them.  There are daily moments when they initiate connection and they need us to respond attentively.  The message communicate with our pre-occupation and responsiveness to calls and email is: Everybody else matters more than you.  Everything else matters more than you.  Whatever the caller may say is more important than what you are telling me now.  Meanwhile, a child is waiting to connect.  Maybe she’s waiting to play or waiting to ask for help with homework.  Or they are waiting to tell you about a test, or a crush, or a quandary.  As one teenage girl told me, “I think in the olden days, families mattered more.  It feels like we’re losing the idea that family matters.

Technology and Child Development

Long-established insights into children’s learning and their inner lives tell us that in the ways that matter most, speed derails the natural pace of development.  Pressure to grow up faster or exposing children to content or influences beyond their developmental ken does not make them smarter or savvier sooner.  Instead, it fast-forwards them past critical steps in the developmental process.  Job No. 1 in elementary school is learning the rules of social engagement: how to make your way in the larger social groups, how to make friends and be a friend, compete fairly, read social cues, and find your niche in the boy and girl culture at your school.  Doing so much of that through tech-mediated correspondence changes the playing field, significantly complicating the task.

* * * * *

Sometimes a child has missed certain relational experiences – learning how to share, how to disagree without getting mad, make eye contact, and not put others downs or engage in inappropriate touching.  Or perhaps the child hasn’t heard important messages about what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to expressing our feelings or acting on them.  Sometimes children are clearly copying behaviors they have seen on popular TV shows or YouTube pranks.  Kids are still being kids, in that they act and react in fundamental ways as they have forever.  These are not bad kids or emotionally disturbed children, necessarily. The third-grade boy who invited a girl he likes into a closet to lift their shirts and kiss each other’s nipples, which he and seen the night before on the family computer; a fourth-grade boy who sent sexually explicit rap lyrics to a girl he wanted to impress, the ten-year-old girl who sent nasty emails to a boy who had embarrassed her, and to others in their school – they didn’t dream up those ideas or lyrics; they pick up disturbing content from a media and online environment that is saturated with it.  They are in over their heads and they need adult help.

* * * * *

Developmentally, this is the time children need parents and teachers to help them learn to tame impulsivity – learning to wait their turn, not cut in line, not call out in a class discussion – and for developing the capacity to feel happy and alone, connected to oneself and empathetic toward others.  Some things in life you just have to do in order to learn, and do a lot of to grow adept at it.  Like learning to ride a bike, developing these inner qualities of character and contemplation calls for real-life practice.  In the absence of that immersion-style learning, time on screens can undermine a child’s development of these important social skills and the capacity to feel empathy.  Studies already suggest that media and social networking play a role in loneliness, depression, attention problems, and tech addiction among adolescents.  Other finds also show media exposure contributing to impulsivity and aggression among younger children.  With nature pressing for human interaction and a child’ world of possibility expanding in the new school environment, to trade it all for screen time is a terrible waste of a child’s early school years.


In a play therapy session, seven-year-old Annabel talks about the loneliness and distress she feels when she is unable to get her parents’ attention.  “My parents are always on their computers and on their cell phones,” she tells me.  It’s very, very frustrating and I get lonely inside.

“What do you do when that happens?” I ask.

She then acts it out for me, with the expressive eyes, face, and voice that break my heart:

When my dad is on the phone I have this conversation in my head: “Hello!  Remember me?  Remember who I am?  I am your daughter!  You had me cuz you wanted me.  Only it doesn’t feel like that right now.  Right now it feels like all – you – care – about – is your phone!”

Then she adds:

But I don’t say that, because they’ll get mad at me.  It doesn’t help.  It feels worse.  So it’s just the conversation I have with myself.”

* * * * *

Lyla, in eighth grade, was doing her homework online with her two best friends since kindergarten, Paula and Melanie. As they often did, the girls were simultaneously Skyping, IMing, and doing homework.  In the flow of their screen chatter, lyla mentioned that her parents were going away for the weekend.  The rapid-fire IM chat went like this:

Paula: let’s have a party at your house, haha

Melanie: great idea!

Paula: yay I’m going to ell everyone now

Lyla: don’t you dare!

Paula: but it would be so cool!

Melanie: so much fun!

Before Lyla could get out another “don’t you dare! Paula had his send and the e-vite went out:

Party at Lyla’s Saturday at 8. RENTS free (no parents)

What Paula and Melanie had forgotten was that they also Facebooked, IM’d, and Google-chatted with Lyla’s mom, so she received the invitation along with the more that fifty kids in the eighty-grade class.  In the middle of her own evening screen time, Lyla’s mom saw it instantly and strode upstairs to find Lyla crying, still struggling online with the girls.  Mom cut in on the screen chat and told the girls in no uncertain terms: “You have to clean this up right away.  How could you do this to Lyla?  I’m really disappointed in you.  Take care of it NOW and I won’t tell the school.”

They did.  But instead of apologizing to Lyla, the girls were punitive toward her:  “Way to go running you your mother!”  When she explain, “No you idiots sent it to my mother cause you’re just that smart,” again, instead of apologizing, they got even huffier.  For the next three weeks Lyla cried every day before going to school. Every day Paula and Melanie iced her out in the most obvious, hurtful ways.  Her attempts to get the girls to “just deal and be friends again” were futile.  And so it went, with verbal jabs – along with that in-you-face IM text lines – delivering low blows and sucker punches, an IM version of the “girls fighting” meme videos on YouTube.  It was an experience of friendship, trust, and unexpected betrayal that was searing for Lyla for a couple of weeks. It was a lesson for all of them in how fast and furious online connectivity can amplify social dynamics. 


Dr. Steiner-Adair provides a lot of data in The Big Disconnect, clear guiding principles informed by that data, and many stories to illustrate those principles.  She can be fierce in her recommendations for protecting what she values as “the sustainable family” where:

There is a fabric of connectivity that is strong and many layered.  It can deal with a crisis with elasticity, without unraveling.  It is flexible, not brittle, and has high tensile strength forged by spending time together.  It values family life above life online.  This means stepping up to manage the media and tech, remove it when necessary, not to exploit it or be exploited by it.   It means to not numb out or avoid family engagement.  A sustainable family is child centered in ways that provide the most loving supportive, and uniquely human context for healthy growth and development.

Here are just a few of her suggestions, again by age group:

Ages 0-2

Let your baby’s room be a screen-free room. Let the space between you be tech free.  Read to your baby without interruption.  Keep your eyes on your baby when she’s crawling and climbing. Create rituals for you and your baby and separate rituals for you and your screen. Preserve what your infant needs from you and give yourself the uninterrupted time to get your work done.  The more we can do this mindfully and consistently for our children, the more likely we are to preserve the primacy of we,

Ages 3-5

Tech makes us get sloppy about our child’s needs at this age for good routines around play, rest, meals, and bedtime. Parents need to stay organized and in control of their attachment to tech and screens and their real-world work requirements.  Since there are fewer boundaries between work and family time, those competing demands now penetrate bath and dinner time, even bedtime.  If we are constantly disappearing into our screens and absenting ourselves from the flow of dialogue with our child, as parents we are playing hooky.  You are sending the child the message, I need you to stop needing me.

At three, four, or five years old a child cannot say to herself or understand that oh, Mommy has to finish her report because her boss is in a different time zone.  They just get irritable and cranky when you put them on hold with your explanations.  It may be necessary to focus on work and get the work done, then turn your undivided attention, without interruptions, to your child.

Ages 6-10

For children at this particular stage of development, research shows that the core they develop now and throughout their education will define their success in school and life more powerfully than almost any other factors, including GPAs and SATs and where they go to college.  With stakes that high, we need to push pause, play, and reset to give our children the time they need for the natural pace of development  Our challenge is this: to intentionally and comprehensively teach social and emotional skills, and create opportunities at home, at school, and in the community for our children to develop the character traits that generate the psychological strengths and resilience necessary for success.

It’s a raw world out there and we need to let them know we know that.  If they run into it on their own, they may feel shame or worry if we haven’t prepared them to share with us.  This is one instance in which the developmental gap between readiness and reality, no matter how wide or at what age, can be bridged with a single message:  You can always tell me.  I will never be mad at you.  Even if you have gone someplace online where you weren’t supposed to go, it’s more important that you tell me.  There is nothing you can tell me that I can’t handle. It will always be reassuring and will make your child more likely to come to you for help.

Ages 11-13

At a time when developmentally they need to be advancing their early relationships skills, tweens begin the drift away from face-to-face interactions that build social and emotional awareness and instead opt for texting and scrolling superficially in relationships online.  Screen and social media time often serve as coping techniques for kids under pressure in an increasingly high-pressured early adolescence.  When a tween’s coping mechanisms leads to excessive or compulsive TV or screen time texting, or social networking, what began as a fun helpful pastime can suddenly hijack a life.

Dinner first.  We hear all this research about the family dinner and why it is so important.  But we all know family diner can be horrible!  Dinner should not be conversations about tests.  Dinner should not be about stressful things.  Dinner is not about fighting; dinner is not where siblings get to be mean to each other or you get to nag.  Kids hate it when they are criticized and critiqued and shut down for being naïve, or stupid, or too young to know better.  Leave that off the menu.

Dinner is a time when you can be curious about your kids and they can be curious about you.  So the kinds of conversations you want to have at diner are about what makes them tick.  What did you do?  How did you come up with that?  What did you do next?  It’s a time to invite each other to brainstorm solutions to problems at work or at school.  If you can think of a dilemma you had in your workday when you didn’t know what to do, share it with your children.  This is great role modeling for children that you, too, face moments of insecurity or confusion, not knowing what to do. Update them another day.  Remember that advice you gave me?  Share how it worked.  That teaches problem-solving skills, enhances their sense of efficacy, and nurtures their motivation and confidence for action.

At its best, dinner is about sharing stories, solving problems, no pressure, no meanness, no putdowns no sarcasm – and no tech distractions.  If you want your children to feel like they really matter to you and you’re really curious about them, show them with your undivided attention.

Ages 14-19

Parents often tell me they feel lost defining limits on computer use because their kids are on screens for so many different reasons and seem to assume they’re entitled to do as they wish.  The basic message you want to send then is this:

This is not your computer – I know it has your name on it, but this is my computer (or your schools computer).  I’m your parent and I reserve the right to see everything that’s going on there.  You need to be on the computer in an open place.  I have the right to know what your homework assignment is.  You can’t be in your room with the door closed.  You can’t take it to bed with you.  You can’t collapse a screen when I walk by.  We have a code of conduct and we expect you to stick with it.  Don’t be mean, don’t lie don’t embarrass other people; don’t pretend to be someone you’re not; don’t’ go places you’re not allowed to go. Don’t post pictures that Grandma wouldn’t love.  Don’t do anything I wouldn’t approve of.

Dr. Steiner-Adair closes The Big Disconnect with:

Our challenge as technology continues to open new worlds of possibility is to not let new opportunities and new apps obliterate old truths.  Children need our attention; children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family.  We have not yet proven that we can work as the large global family we so desperately need to be.  Fortunately, we can bring humanity and technology together on a smaller scale in our own homes and our own families and we can teach our children how to be in this new world.  There we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.


Dr. Steiner-Adair includes a very comprehensive bibliography of books, journal articles, published research reports, newspaper and magazine articles, broadcasts, and online resources in The Big Disconnect.  This newsletter and the resources below are an introduction to a much larger worlds of concepts and data.

Carter, Christine.  Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. 2011.

Dunckley, Victoria, MD. Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time. 2015

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. 2015.

Steiner-Adair, Catherine, PhD.  The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.  2013

Turkle, Sherry, PhD.  Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  2012

Turkle, Sherry, PhD.  Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. 2016.