First it was the break up of the joint families and then it was the advent of television, followed by communication technology. Now it is social media. All of these social changes and technological advances have had an adverse impact on families. Kids prefer texting over talking and parents too opt for social media to stay in touch with the world. Result? Family time, rather real communication and emotional connect, has been well and truly sacrificed.
Does this mean that we ditch the internet and technology completely, put our head in the sand like an ostrich and hope this social storm will blow over? How much ever we wish for it, we all know it is not going to happen.
‘Technology is a double-edged sword,’ points out Dr Nayla Daou, clinical psychologist at Clear Minds Centre in Dubai.
‘School work is online now. You need devices all the time, even at school. There are several studies for qualitative and quantitative data about the way technology is impacting our children. When children are working on school assignments online, it doesn’t affect family relationships because they still go to parents for help and guidance. However, using devices for social media, chatting with friends or for entertainment does tend to isolate children, and even adults.
The problem arises when it becomes difficult to wean kids off their digital devices and get them to look up and talk to their family. ‘I have been with families seeking help on how their children are engrossed in watching media on YouTube. It is easy for kids to withdraw into their room and feel less of a need to be around their parents. These devices can be all-consuming; even if parents want to connect, the children don’t respond,’ points out Nayla.
It’s never a single factor that leads to behavioural or social problems, but an excessive use of devices is often linked to issues that many families face these days.
‘Families see their kids literally pull away. After school or on weekends they don’t get the natural connection with their kids anymore. A lack of connection between parents and children makes the children feel less secure and confident. Social media and technology are really tricky for parents to monitor or control because often the child knows more about it, they are the authority and they take their parents less seriously.
‘The day-to-day interaction between parents and children is decreasing and, in many cases, common areas are hardly used in homes,’ adds Nayla.
Remote connections are thriving in the digital age while we struggle to make connections in person. A lot of times parents seem to find it a challenge to engage youngsters in a conversation as they are constantly glued to their phones.
Chantelle Beaupre Innes, owner of Katavi Skincare – Middle East, and mother of twins aged 21, also feels people are now hiding behind technology and avoid face-to-face interactions.
Chantelle laments the scourge of devices and thinks an over dependence is what one must be careful of. She herself is connected most of her waking hours to keep up with her business commitments but agrees that there should be clear rules around the use of devices.
As a beauty entrepreneur she finds technology a handy tool to boost business and to reach out to a larger audience, but it can also be an all-consuming blackhole that can ruin relationships, if not used judiciously.
‘I launched my skincare business and it is now on Instagram and needs to be constantly updated. I wake up with it and sleep with it. My social networking time on the phone is high because I am permanently on Whatsapp and Instagram for work.
‘Our lives have changed but there are certain values that will never change. Human beings have the innate need to connect and interact and that will never change. The way we do it today is different as we connect more through our devices,’ she says.
Her twins, Caitlin and Connor, are now working. She feels the reason they are still close and connected and have lots to share by way of conversation is because of the strong bonding they had with her in their growing-up years.
‘We used to have picnics in the park and beach days, housewarming parties with friends and families and baby showers and bridal showers, my children have attended them all and used to look forward to having friends and family over for meals.
‘My son loves shopping, so we go out shopping together then sit for a coffee and go on for hours without looking at our respective phones.
‘My daughter and I go to the gym together. Even if I am tired I make time for those few hours we spend together. We laugh and joke together and enjoy working out.’
Chantelle says, ‘I feel so strongly about the way we were raised, so I have stuck with those values and principles. Most of the time we don’t set the boundaries and let the children do what they want then wonder why there is no connection.’
Nayla agrees about defining boundaries for kids and adds that parents must let the children be a part of setting family rules. It helps if parents lead by example.
‘If the kids are involved in setting boundaries, they don’t feel that their parents are imposing these rules on them,’ she says.
Alla Andrianu, senior management associate at a training company and mother of an 18-year-old, Daniel, says she has always had rules in the house, like no devices on the dining table during dinner.
‘We are all tied to our phones and social media can be quite distracting as you tend to spend a lot of time on nothing. In the evening it’s family time and we try to adhere to the no-phone rule; it doesn’t work all the time, but we try to keep the phones out at least for a few hours every day,’ she says.
Every parent understands that teenagers tend to be on their own, and they need space. It’s a thin line for parents to tread though, as giving too much space may lead to complete withdrawal, while too little may be stifling for them. Many a time, they are connected online all day long. They prefer friends to parents when they need to be connected. But while social interactions are important for children, they need deeper connections within the family too.
Nayla advises that families need to spend time together, find things that interest them and do them together to forge stronger bonding.
‘Kids have to realise that family is important and they need to spend time with their parents. Virtual relationship is of a different quality. When you sit face-to-face there are so many non-verbal cues that you pick up. Just be around, spend quality time with children, this cannot be emphasised enough,’ Nayla reiterates.
One needs to create some talking points to engage the kids in face-to-face conversations and it helps if the family shares some common interests.
Alla says that cooking and playing indoor games are some of the weekend activities that she, her husband and her son enjoy doing together.
‘We cook together and take photos and make it more fun. Daniel has friends from school and now in the university but we ensure there are some activities that we do together as a family. We go to the movies together and go cycling and swimming as well and travel together. Even if he is an adult now, he enjoys these family activities, which give us an opportunity to talk.
‘We also enjoy playing cards together and my son is very keen on board games so we encourage him to do that. He plays with a group every Saturday. We have encouraged him to pursue his interest in board games and it’s a good way to socialise and make new friends who have common interests,’ she says.
Family has always been a top priority for the Andrianu family.
‘My son was also very close to both sets of grandparents. They used to visit us and stay with us very often in his early childhood years and he cherishes the memories of family vacations back home. My husband’s parents are no more but he is in regular touch with my mother and calls her every week and has long conversations about her life in the Russian countryside.’
Since it is clear that communication technology and social media are here to stay, it is time, experts feel, that parents stop fighting it and include it their relationship with their kids.
As Amy Orben, first author of a research from Oxford University, said, ‘Just as things went awry offline, things will also go awry online, and it is really important for that communication channel [between parents and kids] to be open.’ Parents should stop worrying about how long their children spend on platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat. Instead, they should talk to them about their experiences, she added, in a report in The Guardian.
There is no handbook for parenting, it’s something you learn along the way. The only fundamental rule perhaps is to keep all channels of communication with our kids open, engaging with them and in the process build an honest, healthy relationship.
Jarita Mitra, Dubai-based executive in a leading pharmaceutical multinational, is mother to teenage son Rishit
I once observed a young couple in a coffee shop seated opposite each other, engrossed in their smart devices... they hadn’t once looked into each other’s eyes or spoken with one another during what could have been one of their valued time together.
With that picture in my memory, there is perhaps a degree of truth in the apprehension that real conversations may be suffering today in a realm of ever-growing technology. At the same time, smart devices have also helped us expand our professional and social network, given us infinite access to information, the ability to find and reconnect with our old friends, and forge "true" bonds with "real" people. I think the key here is "conscious versus unconscious", "excessive versus balanced", "defined priorities versus going with the flow" that will continue to define our choices of how far we allow technology into our lives.
It is up to us parents to raise an aware generation that still understands and appreciates the value of human connections and nurtures relationships.
I also believe technology has never played a more significant role than now in making our lives easier in every way possible... and we should take advantage of these times to make more time for what really matters to us, such as fostering our relationships with loved ones, pursuing our long-held passion/hobby and so on.
As a family we have never felt technology has invaded the bonding we share. It is true with both of us parents working and with our son being in high school, it’s tough to find some time together during weekdays. But we make time as a family during our weekends. And we forge excellent car conversations during weekend travels to our son’s extracurricular activities.
It is important that our children find us around...whether they are younger or teenagers, whether they show it or not, the reality is they need us. But it is up to us to make them trust us enough to open up to us, especially if they are older. It is only through the time we make with our children that we forge these connections.
Cinzia Garau, owner, Honeymoon Salon, Jumeirah, has a son, Edoardo, 14
An excess of anything is bad and that applies to technology as well. I don’t agree with restricting time on the internet because children need to be in tune with the times and it’s a necessity these days. My son is 14 and he spends a substantial part of his day online for both schoolwork and games. Having said that I have never felt that he is overdoing it. Freedom comes with responsibility and he knows that.
We try to have dinner together but I have never enforced it very strictly. We also enjoy cooking together and do that quite often. He helps me in the kitchen and both of us look forward to catching up at the dining table. He knows that if he is with me then he doesn’t spend too much time on the phone or with friends. I haven’t told him to do that but he understands, it’s a priority for both of us to spend time with each other.
The other day, when we were both cooking, one of his friends called him to play but he declined and told him that he was with his mother. I have never stopped him from playing with friends but on that occasion he wanted to finish what he was doing and then if there was time he would have gone to play too. I am glad he has clarity about priorities in life and family is important for him. He has spent most of his summer vacations back home in Italy with my mother and he understands the importance of family bonding. He is very close to his grandmother and my sister and calls them often.
As long as the kids know how to use the internet in moderation, they will be just fine. They are social and even when they play games online, they are playing as teams and the games are quite interactive. An important way to avoid getting too consumed with devices is to have other hobbies. For instance, my son is an avid reader, he loves books and when he is reading, he doesn’t need to be on his device. I love reading too and have inculcated this habit in him from a very early age.