Denise-Continenza_family Living Focus

How many times have you sat in a restaurant awaiting your meal and noticed all the people busying themselves on their cell phones? Even with their families and friends at the table, they are in their own little worlds — just them and their electronic devices. And this is not only young people, it is young and old alike.

One thing we have become less and less able to do is be “present” and “in the moment.” We have become a very distracted society. As we sit in the company of our families, friends or co-workers, we are often thinking about the next person we need to talk to, the e-mail we didn’t respond to, or the ping of a new message that just arrived. Adults are not always the best role models!

In all fairness, the scenario of a family of four sitting at a table each on their own phones may actually be one of connection and strength. Perhaps they are planning the afternoon together and are looking for local events they might attend. Maybe they needed to verify the start time of a child’s sporting event that day or a family gathering. Or maybe they are biding their time playing a game on social media and having some friendly competition. We cannot assume that they are blatantly ignoring each other, playing games solo, or perusing social media. Yet, folks often find themselves doing just that.

A 2018 Nielsen report revealed that American adults spend 11 hours per day interacting with electronic media. Another report from Common Sense Media showed that teens spend about 9 hours per day doing the same. And, even the teens themselves think it is too much. But, how can we avoid these pitfalls and stay in the moment, enjoying the world around us and having genuine communication with the people in our lives, when so much of what we do is connected to online research, apps, and tools? Here are some suggestions.

• Set boundaries for all family members. Consider mealtime a “no technology” zone. Have a basket or special place where everyone places their phones before the meal, if necessary. This helps everyone focus and stay in the present moment.

• Resist getting “hijacked” while doing work using the internet or social media. It is incredible how quickly one can go from reading a recipe to scrolling the original poster’s life story. Which leads to another link and another. Before you know it, you can’t find the recipe again and you just lost over an hour of precious time trolling Facebook.

• During homework, chores or family time, have rules about the use of technology. Engage your children in making the rules as this will more likely increase their cooperation and buy-in. For example, a rule about phone use during family TV time might be: “We can check our phones during commercials only,” or “Only emergency calls and texts will be acceptable.” Parents can define what constitutes an emergency.

• Use the cell phone or device as a reward for completing tasks. As a parent who most likely pays the phone bill, you have control over how and when the phone can be used. Parents often forget that they have the right — and the responsibility — to set guidelines for the use of digital devices. Just like you may have used the “when/then ... ” technique with your young child, this same skill is useful with older children and teens as well. For instance, saying “When you finish taking out the trash, then you may have your phone” is a very reasonable way to solve the problem of a child who dawdles with chores and spends the time instead on the phone. A parent may also let children figure out for themselves that the longer it takes them to get their work done, the less time they will have to spend doing other things. This teaches them internal control, and this is ideally what we want our kids to master.

Indeed, technology has added a new dimension to life, for better or worse. As the use of technology and our reliance on it increases, it is more important than ever that families structure in face-to-face, “no devices” time to connect to each other, have real conversations and enjoy the present moment.

Denise H. Continenza is a Penn State Extension educator in Lehigh County.