Digital age affects family time and relationships

You don’t have to earn the mayor’s title on Foursquare or have a personal YouTube channel to know that technology is profoundly changing family life.

When Ontario celebrated its first Family Day in 2008, parents eager to pry kids off the Internet for a hike could at least unplug the modem.

Five years later, that no longer does the trick, thanks to the proliferation of portable gadgets. They may come along for the hike, but so will the Smartphone.

During your day of togetherness, your kids may also be tweeting between rolls of the Monopoly dice, texting you from upstairs to see what’s for dinner or posting on their blog while out for brunch. Adults may be whipping out the BlackBerry to check emails or update their own Facebook status.

Some families may impose some tech-free togetherness.

In many ways, digital devices have made family life more complicated and subject to distraction. But they’ve also led to some interesting changes in how the generations communicate.

Foursquare, for example, is an app that families can use to check in and track each other’s whereabouts using GPS hardware.

When Alyson Schafer’s 15-year-old daughter needed to raise a distressing subject a few years ago, she sent her mom to the home office and headed into her own bedroom, where she began the conversation via instant messaging.

Mother and daughter were only steps apart, but using a keypad allowed the teen to talk about the scary subject of a friend’s eating disorder at her own pace and without scrutiny.

“This was not a conversation she could start face to face,” says Schafer, a psychotherapist and parenting author. Instead she needed to think, write and stop before hearing an adult’s reaction. Fifteen minutes later mother and daughter emerged and finished the emotional talk in person.

Amanda Lee’s children, ages 7 and 4, haven’t visited their grandparents and their extended family in Australia for several years. But the Oakville mother says they still have a relationship, thanks to regular visits using Skype.

Text messaging allows Andrew Campbell of Hamilton to keep in touch with his teenage sons on those days when they are at their mother’s.

“If I see something that interests them, I can let them know and send it immediately,” says Campbell, a teacher who is active on social media.

As someone who wants his kids to grow up to comfortable, responsible and fluent in technology, he thinks it’s important to model that too.

It’s easier to check in with kids at university or how your school-age child may be doing on a difficult day. Schafer says it also gives them an out — “my mom just texted me that I have to come home” — or a quiet way to arrange a ride if they are in social situations that make them uncomfortable.

While technology can enhance togetherness, the big challenge is not letting it take over, says Toronto filmmaker Kelli Kieley.

She loves going online with Aaron, 10, and Maia, 7, to look up answers to their questions and discovery new websites. “It’s like we’re learning and finding out information together.”

But the downside is that devices, including her own iPhone, are always beckoning. “I find our family time is way more disrupted.”

The changes and challenges were explored last week by a panel of tech-savvy parents and educators at a Toronto event hosted by Bunch, an online parenting community.

Schafer, a panellist, said being attuned to evolving social media is, like potty training, a modern parenting duty. So is understanding why kids are attracted to it, how they use it and setting limits.

As kids learn to navigate and behave responsibly, they need a safe place to bring their questions or talk about troubling things they may observe online without fear that parents will freak out or punish them.

Royan Lee, a father of three and Richmond Hill teacher who uses social media in his classroom, describes it as “a reciprocal learning arrangement” between kids and adults with many teachable moments.

His observations after teaching hundreds of kids: there’s a correlation between families who fear technology and kids who don’t behave appropriately online. When parents use technology with their kids and view it positively, kids follow, he says.

Some studies have found that technology tends to amplify the existing dynamic in a household rather than change it, by exacerbating isolation in families that don’t interact or enhancing communication between those who already have healthy and frequent conversations.

Nonetheless many parents worry that the encroachment of digital devices will undermine family life.

That’s one reason you won’t catch Jodi Lastman or her daughters with hand-held devices if they head out for a Family Day stroll. One reason is Lastman doesn’t own a cellphone. She uses social media in her marketing job and will flip open her laptop as needed when she’s at home. But she doesn’t want face time with her kids, ages 7 and 4, interrupted by the

“false urgency” of text messages and phone calls.

Technology will encroach soon enough, she says. At the moment, she prefers spending family time playing a board game, watching a movie or walking their puppy.


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