The Family System and its Newest Member: Technology

By Stephanie Burstein, MS, LMFT

Technology can drive families crazy!  An avalanche of devices, apps and information is overwhelming. How do you decide what is best for your family? Instead of looking at the ‘problem of technology’, we must create a framework within the family that includes technology as a helpful tool for communication, entertainment and education.

Model Good Behavior

First, take a hard look at your relationship with technology. Children learn by observing. Are you glued to your laptop? Do you stop mid-sentence to answer a text? If you are asking your child to not bring his phone to the dinner table, you want to make sure you aren’t bringing yours either.

Build a Strong Relationship with your Child

If ‘family time’ consists of complaining about unfinished chores, arguing about poor grades or a list of “self-improvement” items, your child will run and hide when they see you coming. Quality time is critical. Family meals, with an intention to connect and support each other is one of the most valuable things you can do as a parent. Additionally, carve out small amounts of time throughout the week to engage individually with your child, creating multiple opportunities to connect.  If your child feels comfortable talking to you and you are present, validating and non-judgmental, your child will be more comfortable and likely to bring difficult issues to you directly.

Set Limits

Children need clear limits and structure to feel safe and be successful.  Present limits in an open dialogue, listening to your child and validating their emotions.  (Remember, validation means you show understanding, not compliance.) If you understand where they are coming from you can have a more productive discussion.  Here are some considerations for setting limits:

  • Daily Screen Time. This can look different for weekends vs weekdays, and the age of the child. Apple and Android have added control settings to their phones which makes it easier to monitor.
  • Passwords: Know your child’s passwords. This is important for safety checks, not spying. High Schoolers are building autonomy so focus more on trust and communication.
  • Apps/Games: Preview apps and games before purchasing or downloading for young children. Have discussions about privacy and appropriate content with older children.
  • Night-Time Protocol: Where does the phone go at bedtime?

When is it a problem?

Look at your child’s relationship with technology. What are they doing on the phone, computer, gaming system and who are they doing it with? Spending a few hours on YouTube learning to play the guitar or using their Xbox to connect with friends they know from school is appropriate. So, how do you know if your child’s technology relationship has become problematic? First, determine if they are engaging in other activities such as sports, art, hang outs, etc. If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance the technology use is okay. When you notice your child is withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy, you should take a deeper look.

Another red flag is your child’s reaction to leaving their phone behind, or, if it is taken away. It is normal to have an emotional response. However, a long-lasting reaction that is abnormally intense for your child, involves hurting themselves or abusing property, are all indications of a bigger problem. If your child is showing signs of being overly attached to technology or disengaged from friends and activities, check in to find out what else might be happening. Remember, overuse of technology is a symptom, and not usually the problem.

Technology is Not the Enemy!

Viewing technology as the enemy will make connecting with your children more difficult. Technology can be a tool for growth and connection. Engage genuinely with your child about what they are doing online. Find out what apps and games your child likes and why. Play with them! Establishing a family-friendly, healthy framework for technology will bring out the best in everyone!