Plugged in vs. parenting: When misused, technology can interfere with family dynamics

August 08, 2013|By MAGGIE WOLFF PETERSON | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • Know when to turn off the electronics to be more attentive to your child.
Tomaz Levstek / Getty Images/iStockphoto

 Personal electronics are supposed to keep us connected. Conversations on the cellphone, texts and tweets are meant to link people through shared information. Social media are supposed to be the way we keep up with each other.

But they can be isolating, too.

If Mom is always on her handheld device, if Dad can’t get off Facebook, if the kids are more invested in texting their friends than being present at the dinner table, family life is fractured.

It’s a malady of the times.

Clinical social worker Alice Wilson, on staff at Brooklane in Hagerstown, said she has counseled families affected in just these ways. Electronics are simply a tool, she said.

 “There are ways they can be helpful and there are ways they can be problematic,” she said.

Setting limits for kids begins long before a parent puts a cellphone in their hands, she said. “The limits need to be set when they’re little.”


Every parent knows: toddlers have tantrums. If they can’t have the toy they want, when they want it; if bedtime comes before they’re ready; if they absolutely have to eat what’s on their plate. Magnify those outbursts to the size of teenagers losing cellphone privileges, and a parent has a problem, Wilson said.

But parents are equally liable. 

“No texts at the dinner table, by anyone,” she said.

Effects on the child

Jennifer Pierce, a licensed clinical professional counselor and owner of Hagerstown Counseling, said keeping plugged in while your child wants attention might have effects down the road.

“This may inadvertently send the message that they are not important,” Pierce said. “Children are very self-oriented, so they tend to make everything about themselves. Therefore, a child will assume that your distraction by the Internet has something to do with them, i.e. ‘I’ve been bad,’ ‘I’m not important,’ etc.”

Crystal Rice, a therapist and relationship consultant with Insieme Consulting in Hagerstown said children often see life in black and white. 

“It’s not until they’re in their mid-teenage years that we get some children who are able to understand the complex shades of gray that make up the adult world,” Rice said. 

That is why it’s hard for children to understand that Mom or Dad being on Facebook isn’t a reflection on how the parent feels about the child.

“When a parent’s focus is on anything other than a child, that child makes an instant decision about how their parent views them,” Rice said. “If the focus is on something family-focused, such as cooking dinner or preparing for travel, the child can understand the role those activities play in the greater dynamic of a family and so accept the distraction. But if the focus is on something less ‘acceptable’ in a child’s mind, such as social media or work, the child believes the parent must view that activity as more important to the parent than the child. This can make children feel there must be something wrong with them that the parents don’t like them more than this other activity.”

Rice said most parents would argue that fact.

“But it will always surprise parents to hear how much their children really think of themselves as a burden to or somehow not as important to their parents as other things, simply because the parent was engrossed in other activities when a child tries to tell a simple story,” she said.

Monkey see, monkey do

Children often mirror their parents’ behavior, which happens when parents choose Facebook over playing a game of football. 

“In the long run, this could teach a child that family is not important or that work is more important than family time; however, your other beliefs and behaviors regarding family may support or counterbalance this message,” Pierce said.

But social media isn’t always to blame, Rice said. There have always been distractions.

“The ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ song was popular even before electronics,” Rice said. “We can certainly imagine how even more divided a parent’s time is now with all of this instant access. As in the song, what we teach our children about the importance they play in our lives will be passed from them to their grandchildren and to us as we age.”

Know what’s important

Learning to not be plugged in too much is about finding a balance between family and work time, especially when Mom or Dad must use social media or the Internet for work.

Pierce suggests to schedule quality time in the family appointment planner, just as a parent would schedule work time. 

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