At Unplugged Family, we believe in using technology for good. We are not anti-technology: we are pro-connection. Technology has provided ways for people to connect across boundaries of time and space, reuniting families and old friends who had lost touch, and giving people a chance to create communities based not just on where they live, but on shared passions. Our primary way of communicating with our Unplugged Family tribe and members of the Unplugged Family Group is via Facebook! That’s how we can bring the message that you’re not alone in your fear that devices are taking over your family’s life to the mama, dad or grandparent who would not find a supportive community anywhere else.
Yet we, like you, are concerned when we see our kids playing computer games instead of playing outside. We worry when our daughters post selfies and count the number of likes, or worse yet, get upset when someone makes a mean comment. We recognize that kids aren’t at a developmental stage where they can critically evaluate the information they’re receiving online, and it’s our job as parents to protect them from unhealthy influences and guide them to a balanced lifestyle where technology is a tool that they use to further their own life’s mission – not an addictive habit that gets in the way of their academic progress, social development, and family life.
Computer games have many lessons to teach young people. Learning how to overcome obstacles, how to persist in the face of failure, how to focus attention and keep on a task, even how to work in teams with others in simulated “raids,” are all benefits of playing computer games. As opposed to the passive activity of watching a television, computer games can engage our children’s brains and teach them many skills that will serve them well in their education and future careers.
However, when we see kids playing games late into the night, becoming irritable with their parents when asked to stop playing the game, or disconnecting from real life friends and activities, we get worried. Games are designed with more and more sophisticated ways of getting kids (and adults!) hooked – creating incentives for playing longer, designing ways to achieve higher social status by investing both time and money into the game. Parents have even started to hire coaches to teach their kids how to better play the game Fortnite where large monetary prizes are offered to those who can beat tremendous odds to become the best players. The chances of kids actually winning the money are so slim that it’s like parents buying kids’ lottery tickets instead of investing in true skill building activities like music lessons or sports. However, as the culture shifts toward one where technology is more a part of everyday life and constant attachment to devices is the norm, encouraging a child’s online gaming has become socially acceptable and profitable.
Since the dawn of time, humans have struggled to make connections across geographical boundaries. The ability to carry letters, first through birds and messengers on foot or horseback, evolving until postal services have made it possible for people to share information and most importantly love across the miles. Many of us can remember when the fax machine first came into common use: all of a sudden, you could send a letter instantly! Now, with email and text messaging, plus the hordes of other applications that make communication not only fast but anonymous, technology is quickening the speed with which humans out of voice range can “talk” to each other.
Those of us who remember waiting for the landline to ring and being afraid to leave the house for fear of missing a call can speak to how now seemingly inconsequential inventions like the answering machine radically changed our lives. With the cell phone, we believed we were freed from the confines of our homes and offices, able to take communication with us wherever we went. The smartphone intensified this sense of connection, making it possible for us to communicate anywhere. Suddenly we were available to family, friends and work literally anytime, anywhere.
Then we realized the downside. What had once seemed liberating was now a technological leash. We struggle in parenting with setting boundaries on how much we will be available via electronic devices during what used to be called “non-work time” reserved for family, community and personal life. Our kids have grown up seeing us, at times, more responsive to our phones and emails than we seemed to be to them. It’s no surprise that kids are turning to online friendships and relationships when they see their parents modeling the behavior, often at the expense of giving their children the attention they need.
We at Unplugged Family are strongly in favor of communication. We would never want to go back to the days when a working mother waited anxiously by her work phone for her child’s phone call that she had arrived safely from her walk home from school. None of us would want to work longer hours at the office or give up the option of telecommuting when technology has made more flexible, and often family-friendly options possible. We get concerned when we see technological communication reducing real life, face to face or at least voice to voice communication. When a one sentence, at most, text communication from adult children who live miles away from their parents takes the place of that weekly long catch up call, something is lost. When young children see their parents picking up their smartphones more regularly than they physically reach out to them, there’s a problem. We want to use technology to increase and deepen communication, not create a barrier to it.
The internet has made it possible for people to form communities across the boundaries of geography, nationality, religion and socioeconomic status. This worldwide community literally saved lives when Liberian immigrants living in the United States communicated via Facebook, Twitter and email with family threatened by the ebola outbreak in Liberia. They shared the fact that it was important to cooperate with public health officials and bury bodies of ebola victims without touching the bodies, in sharp contrast to religious customs.
Members of marginalized groups who are unable to find support in their local areas can find their “tribe” online. This can be especially helpful for people fighting diseases who turn to online cancer support groups, parents of children with disabilities, and even shy, smart kids whose peer group is interested in typical grade level activities while they’d rather be discussing Shakespeare.
The internet can also be used to create political action, allowing people to come together and join their voices in ways that were heretofore impossible or at least extremely difficult. Sharing stories on Facebook, circulating online petitions, and even sharing video from the scene of pro-democracy uprisings were all impossible before the internet.
While we strongly support the many ways that technology has fostered community building, we don’t want to lose sight of the value of real world, in person community. Going to a worship service with fellow believers, playing in a local softball league, or participating in a protest in person rather than online are all more powerful experiences than clicking a button. Even sitting on the porch or backyard and talking to neighbors or chatting with folks in the park or at a local coffee shop creates a kind of connection that online community can not.
We don’t suggest that anyone give up the benefits of technology. Technology is so much a part of our lives now that most would have to change jobs or move to Amish country to abandon it all together! However, we want to encourage people, especially those with the responsibility for raising the next generation, to put technology in its proper place. Being aware of how we use devices, mindful of our automatic reactions to them, and clear in our priorities in how we spend our time and attention are our goals.
Technology can and should be used for the good. We all carry smartphones and use them to touch base with family, friends and work, as well as to look up recipes or even veg out on Facebook or Pinterest from time to time. We’re not suggesting you unplug from everything, shut the power down and hope that the storm passes – experience has shown that the march of technological progress will continue, whether we like it or not. Unplugged Family exists to equip, inspire, and give support to those who value a balanced relationship with technology, one where the good far outweighs the bad.