The Online Family: How Can We Protect Family Time and Set Boundaries in a High-Tech World?

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Answered by: Dara, An Expert in the Family Life Category
Connection has become one of the more challenging pursuits of the modern family - especially as we face ever-increasing competition for our time and attention. The computer, the phone, the endless ways in we are always in touch with the outside world has - oftentimes - left us staggeringly out of touch with the people inside our very homes.

Certainly, navigating the world of social media and constant communication - and learning to set appropriate boundaries - has proven difficult for many average adults. So it’s not surprising that our children - certainly less equipped to deal with setting boundaries in this age of technology - have far more difficulty with shutting down and tuning in. Let's face it - cell phones, Internet and the family can often have a contentious relationship. How do we protect family time?

Mixed messages don’t help. How many of us have loudly complained about our children texting during dinner only to pick up our own phones when they buzz (the sweet, deceptively innocuous sing-song of a text tone simply too tantalizing to resist)? How many of us have mandated that our children shut down their computers immediately when - as we make our request - our own computer sits smugly on our laps?

I’m absolutely guilty of the age-old “do what I say, not what I do” adopted by centuries of parents before me. But, at what price? At what point am I turning to Facebook to learn more about my teenager? And, if my ten-year-old is texting me from her room (when I’m in the kitchen) to find out what’s for dinner, I can’t help but feel as if something has gone awry.

A recent study conducted by Kristen Purcell at the Pew Research Center, entitled “Teens 2012: Truth, Trends and Myths About Teen Online Behavior” shows that the average teenager sends 60 texts a day and 76% are users of social media sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook.

Where does that leave family time? With school, work, activities - and now a demanding online schedule and a constantly engaged phone - how do we keep our relationships from falling through the cracks? The following are some ideas to set boundaries and protect family time:

1. Declare dinner a “no phone zone.” Sitting down for dinner never used to be a topic of conversation. It was a given. Dad was home at 5:15 every night and every night the four of us sat down for a meal. Today, with busier schedules, it has become increasingly difficult to keep this tradition alive. But families shouldn’t miss out on the enormous benefits of family dinner - a time to connect, talk about our day and check in with what’s going on in the lives of our children. A study done by the National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 1998 even showed that family dinners can dramatically reduce a teen’s chance of using drugs - including nicotine and alcohol. Why not set aside a half hour to 45 minutes an evening for dinner and collect phones at the door for a meal with no interruptions?

2. Try an “unplugged” weekend. Does the thought of no television, phone or computer make your palms sweat? Sounds like you’ve got it bad! How can we expect our children to disconnect if we’re not willing to walk the walk? Why not try an unplugged Saturday - or, if time allows, a whole weekend - once every couple of months? Count on table games, books and conversation to get you through. The bonus? You might wind up learning something new about each other!

3. Don’t be afraid to set limits. Set boundaries on how much time is enough time for children to use the computer each day for recreational purposes and adjust as appropriate for age. Set an egg timer for younger children so they know when it’s time to shut down for the night.

4. Do continue to read. Set aside time each night to continue to read to younger children and encourage older children to pick a book and do some reading before bed - instead of being online.

5. Keep talking. Be sure to convey your values to your children regarding phone use, texting, email and social networking. Make sure they understand what is appropriate and that they can always come to you with questions or concerns. Make sure you always remain front and center in your children’s lives. You may not have the answers as quickly as Google but you’re there to guide them, ensure their safety and happiness and protect family time.

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