How has tech affected family relationships?

Smartphones, tablets and gadgets are part of everyday life. So are 21st century families suffering as a result of our addiction to devices and is it damaging bonds with our children?

family_07Times are changing. For most of us, our childhood – some 20 years ago, but who’s counting? – involved riding bikes, playing in the streets, climbing trees, building forts out of pillows, playing board games and making up secret handshakes with our best friend. Today’s children, on the other hand, are growing up in the 21st century where technology reigns. Surrounded by it everywhere they look – some school textbooks are even being replaced by tablets – it’s become embedded in their day-to-day life and could put them at risk of overuse and even addiction.

Yet, it’s not only children who are being affected. Parents are equally as reliant on technology. But is our addiction to gadgets ruling our lives to the detriment of our
family relationships?

Golden time

family_05Where once, families used to convene at the dinner table to discuss their day or huddle around a Monopoly board, now parents are checking emails on their device in the evenings or on weekends while children lock themselves in their room playing video games, browsing Instagram and What’sApping friends for hours on end.

“Families are no longer sitting and having dinner together,” Dr Candice Render, paediatric psychologist and director of rehabilitation services at the American Center Special Abilities, laments. “They’re eating but everyone is doing an activity on their phone so the communication isn’t there and the bonding is being compromised.”

Dr Adrian Harrison, psychologist at KidsFIRST Medical Center, agrees, adding that we’re letting technology rule our lives without realising: “Sometimes I think it’s the implicit cues. For example, when we go to someone’s house and immediately ask for the wifi code, which suggests that the internet will be really important for whatever is happening. I think as we have a better relationship with our devices, we can try to mirror that with our children.”

The right balance

family_04The connection between parents and children is a building block for future relationships, according to Dr Adrian, and it’s important to nurture these, spend time bonding and engage with each other.

As a parent herself, Dr Candice knows all too well how easy it can be for parents to rely on gadgets as a type of pacifier.

“[Face to face interaction] is vital to our development [as humans],” she adds. “Before the age of three, if you’re not sitting with your child and doing some kind of learning programme, they shouldn’t have access to an iPad. It’s not a babysitter – you don’t just turn on a game and let a child play for three hours just because it keeps them quiet, no matter the age of the child.”

You may think you’d never allow your child, or even yourself, to spend as long as three hours on a single device. But it’s easy to lose track of time and get sucked into the endless pit that is our digital world.

“Once upon a time, with things we used to do, there was clear demarcation,” Dr Adrian explains. “You would read a newspaper and the newspaper ends, then you get rid of it. Cartoons used to be on a Saturday morning, so you had to wake up then to watch cartoons! Now, we have 24/7 YouTube and everything just goes on and on and on. We don’t have those innate boundaries where things end.”

Both experts point out, though, that not all technology is bad. But when we don’t put boundaries in place for our family, there is a threat of technology taking over and it can certainly hinder relationships and family values.

“I think one of the stumbling blocks is that as parents we let our children create their own boundaries,” Dr Adrian warns. “We need to put these boundaries in place, whether it’s checking their Facebook, or saying devices are only allowed in certain rooms – that’s a clear boundary.”

While spending an hour or so playing a game after finishing homework or checking news from friends in faraway places on Facebook probably won’t cause any long-term damage, both Dr Candice and Dr Adrian agree that the key to any technology usage is balance.

“Sometimes technology becomes a scapegoat, but actually it’s a device, a tool,” Dr Adrian notes. “What do we actually mean? Do we mean that our children actually prefer to engage with their device than with us? How do I develop my child’s play skills, how do I interact with my child, how do we engage them in activities, how do I ask them about their day? That’s where the great struggle of being a parent comes in: engaging with young people. Sometimes the issue is that they’re too engrossed in their device as opposed to what’s going on in the family.

“If we just use a different software tool or app, we can have good joint attention using that iPad. A board game, for instance, becomes a focal point where you can get a good connection between two people. It could be a drawing app, looking at pictures together, but you have something and you’re engaging with your child through that. It’s about our ability as adults to try and engage our children.”

Top tips 

Dr Candice and Dr Adrian give their advice for engaging with your children, creating lasting bonds and not letting technology rule your relationship…

Lead by example: “A lot of times, it’s more the parents that are hooked on devices and the children just follow suit,” Dr Candice stresses. “We have to model the behaviour that we want our children to model. If you’re on your devices all the time, it’s hard for your children not to be.”

Set boundaries: Put specific limitations in place such as where and when technology can be used. Designate a time to cut off from wifi and create ‘no-phone zones’ such as at the dinner table or in the car.

Talk to your children: Explain the appropriate use of technology, what is and isn’t acceptable to download and safety risks. Establish an open communication policy where children can come to you if they are unsure of something they see online. But, Dr Candice warns, avoid placing parental controls unless children regularly demonstrate that they cannot be trusted in their online habits.

Monitor purpose, usage and intensity: Is your child using a device for education, as a reward or as a pacifier? How long are they using devices for and how engrossed are they in that device? Look out for signs of addiction such as irritability when a device is taken away.

Plan family activities: Whether you have a teenager that you’re struggling to bond with or a youngster who’d prefer to play games on the iPad, it’s important to connect with your children. Find activities you can do together, and spend one-on-one time with your child every day to solidify your relationship.

Remember, technology is not your babysitter: Excessive use of technology in children under the age of three is thought to negatively affect their development and communication. Dr Candice stresses to only use technology with youngsters as a learning tool used under supervision: “The more you talk and engage with your child, the more their language will develop, and there really is no substitute for that.”

Useful contacts

KidsFIRST Medical Center
Villa 135, Street 12, near Al Forsan International Sports Resort, Khalifa City. Contact: 02 555 1437,

American Center for Special Abilities
Villa 253, Al Kharamah Street, near Hazza Bin Zayed Street. Contact: 02 666 5545,

WORDS Rachael Perrett


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