When I got my first smartphone a few years ago, it did not take me long to realize that it was more of an entertainment device than a communication one. Sure, I could make calls and send emails and text messages, but I could also surf the Web, use the maps, and even play Angry Birds. As an avid Scrabble player online, I found the app for that within hours of opening the box. Now I could play my letter tiles anywhere and anytime with great ease. I do love the phone and text features, too, but I confess that game play probably earns more battery time than the practical aspects of my phone.
I also recall, the next holiday season, being at a large gathering of several families with many teens and college students present. While the adults talked in the dining room and the little children watched a classic holiday show on TV, the teens and young adults gathered in the family room. We could hear them laughing, but when I went to talk with them, I was surprised that every one of them was texting or clicking a game or talking to a friend on the phone—but not a friend in the room! There were a dozen individual bubbles of conversation or activity in the room, islands of communication heading away from the group in unknown directions.
Most of us, kids and adults alike, enjoy our digital entertainment. We are also learning how to use technological tools to help support the educational process. And we find them extremely helpful with travel plans and quick exchanges with friends. Sometimes people come together through their use, and sometimes we seek solitude, or even fall into isolation.
Many kids and teens received digital devices like smartphones and tablet computers this past holiday season. Even for adults who are fans of technology—some of whom gave these gifts to their kids—it can be frustrating when kids spend a lot of time on gadgets. You may even be concerned that the time we all spend on digital entertainment is unhealthy or counterproductive. Adults can work on managing digital time for ourselves, and we can help the kids in our lives do the same. Rather than banning the use of video games, smartphones, tablets, or even TV, focus on balance. Here are a few things to try:
Play together. Kick around a soccer ball for a bit with your kid, then offer to play a round of video game soccer together. After watching YouTube videos together, ask kids to play a few hands of cards with you. Challenge them to use their iPad to search bike trail maps for places you can ride on the weekend. Make using electronic devices a partnering tool, not the end in itself.
Plan together. Plan meals, activities, or projects. It might be hard to get the family to the dinner table often, but make it a family plan and give everyone a role. Search out cooking apps for all family members and plan when they will make recipes with you. Looking for something to do on summer vacation? Pick a destination, and ask each family member to get on the Web to learn about one outing or activity they would like to check out while you are there. Do you want to update a space in your home? Ask everyone to find some feature that they think would add to the space. Using a smart device and an Internet connection, they can find actual plans and make lists of materials.
Learn together. There are sites and apps for learning about hundreds of hobbies, sports, and activities. Pick a couple, and spend some time doing them together. Also pick things for yourself, but share your progress with your kids. Have you always wanted to learn to play guitar? Ask for family help in finding the best instructional apps. Have a child who wants to learn to knit? Another who wants to restore a classic car? There are sites and apps for beginners to pros. You can learn about what skills and tools it takes to restore a car long before the kid is ready to invest in one. Do you spend time hiking, at a local park, or at a seashore? Bring your smartphones and look up the rocks, shells, birds, and other interesting things you see there. Make a game of photographing specimens, and looking them up later.
Put it in motion. Challenge your kid to find local activities that use the skills they develop in their games. Someone who loves adventure games might want to try rock climbing or learning to canoe. A video game sharpshooter might find a paintball playground for the family. Ask your kids what talents they think are needed to be good at their favorite games, both wired and physical. Figure out ways to develop any gaming traits that put things into motion. This can work both ways—a kid with a talent for hitting the baseball but an equal challenge for dropping it could research sites for pointers on improvement, then try to put them into practice. Encourage them to invite a friend, too.
Control your own “timesuckers.” Timesuckers are things that draw us in and eat up time, often distracting us from tasks or activities we would rather do. Tell kids what things in your life are your timesuckers—whether it’s watching a favorite TV series, drooling over online catalogs, or playing chess on your computer. Share a time goal and tell what you want to do with that time. “I want to spend thirty minutes less on timesuckers tomorrow so I can go hear Aunt Sally read at the library.” “I am trading game time for reading time, until I finish this new book.” “I realized that I’m spending a lot more time online these days, and less time playing the piano, so I’m going to prioritize piano instead.” We all know that we waste some time regularly. Perhaps the best way to change that is to consciously trade timesuckers for other activities.
Help kids manage their timesuckers, too. After sharing a time goal of your own, ask your kids to share one. Start small. If your son is always late for the bus but plays games before school, challenge him to trade ten minutes of game time for getting ready for the bus. If your daughter wants to take music lessons, help her carve out short bursts of practice time. When team sports beckon, help kids define how much video game time they are willing to trade for it.
Let them know you notice. When your kids spend time knitting a scarf, let them know you’re happy they’re trying new things. When they chatter endlessly at you about carburetors versus injectors while you’re driving them to the mall, ask questions! Notice them spending time with friends instead of criticizing time spent on Instagram.
Enjoy the games and gadgets! All things in moderation? Sure! Both you and your kids can have a lot of fun, or enjoy some quiet time, by playing video games and sharing thoughts with friends online. Personally, I love my Scrabble games with friends near and far, and have no intention of giving them up. But I have retired Angry Birds to save for sick days and long waiting lines.
What strategies do you use for balancing out your digital life? How about the lives of your kids? Let us know in the comments!
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I love your term “Timesuckers” and these “tools” certainly can be just that! Our addiction to turning to them for down time or entertainment can really turn us away from doing things with PEOPLE. I am putting a postit on my iPad to remind myself to turn it off after two hands of solitaire.
I think you make a great point here that while technology can be a wonderful resource and addition to our communication, it can also hinder the person-to-person communication right in front of us. Specifically for family time, I think setting boundaries and rules that must be followed is a smart way to preserve this.