I took my family out to dinner last week one evening after my younger son’s lacrosse practice.   As we were catching up on each other’s day and making plans for the coming weekend, I noticed a family had been seated at the table next to us.  What struck me as odd was that the dad was on his Blackberry, the mom was texting on her cellphone and their teenage daughter was also texting-all at the same time!  This went on for the duration of the meal and I don’t think they had more than five minutes of conversation the entire time they were seated.   It was almost surreal for me to see three people sharing a meal while absorbed in the worlds of their individual electronic devices.  It occurred to me that I was observing a virtual family in action.

The memory of that evening has stuck with me and I have since observed with far greater interest, kids and parents intently focused on the little screens in front of them as they walk, eat and ride in cars.  I brought this topic up at a recent lunch with friends who shared that they were having significant challenges with how much their teens were texting and how they would rather communicate via this medium versus having a real conversation.  Is this progress or are we taking a giant leap backward in the development of our children?  Have we thrown in the towel and allowed the wired world in which we live to raise our children for us?  Are we contributing to the problem through the examples we are setting for our children?

I want to be clear that I am not anti-technology.  It could be that I am feeling a little overwhelmed by the very tools and devices which were meant to make our lives easier and more efficient.   I struggle with my own Blackberry addiction and responding to the avalanche of emails I receive each day.  We have a Wii, computers and iPods in our home and we all watch TV.  But, we also have clear limits.  We restrict our kids’ computer and TV time, their music choices and the content they can view.  Our boys are 13 and nine and they do not have cell phones.  We will likely provide them in the future for safety reasons, but we may not allow texting.   It is a constant struggle for me and my wife to keep an eye on the potential negative influence of technology/media, but the alternative to being vigilant is the painful road to becoming a virtual family like the one I saw in the restaurant.   We can’t allow that to happen.

How do we fight back?  What can parents do?  First of all, let’s acknowledge the obvious: our children are growing up with multiple and advanced forms of technology that didn’t exist when we were kids.  Studies have been done which show a clear connection between the explosion of ADD/ADHD cases and the addictive nature of complex video and computer games.  A recent national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that minority youth (8-18 year olds) devoted an average of 7 ½ hours a day to entertainment media!   Generation Y (our children’s generation) is also having problems with interpersonal communication.  They struggle to relate to other human beings outside of texting and computers.  For a sobering and informative look at the challenges facing this generation, read Dr. Tim Elmore’s excellent new book, Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future.  Also, take a look at his websites: www.growingleaders.com and www.savetheirfuturenow.com.

Now, I would like to take you down a different path.  It would be easy for us to think that based on what you have read so far, our children and the culture are largely responsible for the creation of the “virtual family.”  I am afraid not.  My fellow parents, you and I are mostly to blame.  The responsibility to set the right example, create appropriate limits and offer healthier alternatives for our families rests squarely on our shoulders.  We have to take ownership of the fact that we are enabling the problem or it won’t get better.  We can’t live in denial any longer and immediate action is needed.

Unless we plan to move to a remote cabin in the woods, we are going to face the inevitability of our families being constantly exposed to all forms of media and technology at school, work and home.  That is reality.  But, we have the ability and obligation to enforce a degree of moderation and offer our families more suitable choices.  I am simply suggesting that we replace that which is harmful with that which is beneficial.  Here are six positive actions my wife and I are trying very hard to follow in raising our children:

  • Put away the idols. Every minute devoted to TV, texting, computers, video games and our Blackberries is time not spent in prayer and serving our Creator.  We often forget that we are in the world, but not of the world.  We are made for Heaven and not this place called Earth.  Do our daily actions reflect this?
  • Respond to our vocations. As Catholics, we should know that our vocation as parents is to help our families (and everyone else) get to Heaven.  This won’t happen unless we put Christ first in our lives and certainly in our homes.  If our children see us praying, joyful about attending Mass, going to Reconciliation and volunteering our time to help others they are more likely to follow our example.  This is the most important influence we can have over our children.
  • Read a book. Make time for reading and encourage our children to open a book, not a web page.   Introduce gadget free, family reading time.  If they only see us on our laptops or watching TV, they will likely model that behavior.
  • Talk to each other. Generation Y is struggling with interpersonal communication, perhaps because we don’t reinforce this at home.  We have to show genuine interest in our kid’s lives and not accept “fine” as the answer to every question.  By the way, moms and dads need to talk to each other as well (the kids model what they see!).
  • Family dinner is sacred. This one is tough, but make a commitment to have dinner together-every night if possible.  Even if it is a quick stop at Chick-fil-a on the way to football practice, meals (devices turned off!) are the perfect time to catch up and keep us involved in our children’s lives.  Don’t forget to share your day as well.  My kids are very curious about my work day and my sharing becomes a great teaching opportunity about life in the real world.
  • Don’t be a couch potato. It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon, your favorite movie is on and you are looking forward to a little down time…and you hear the kids playing video games in the basement.  Parents deserve a break (we really do!), but we need to get the kids outside for a bike ride, a hike, throwing the football or a simple walk as often as possible.  Anything that engages them physically and provides meaningful interaction with another human being is a better alternative than Sponge Bob or Super Mario Brothers.

I know what I am advocating is difficult, but most worthwhile endeavors are going to be challenging.  Either we change our habits and positively influence the behavior of our children or we sink into the mindless comfort of our wired worlds and leave our children poorly prepared for the future.  A big part of this equation is recognizing that our children need us to be their parents and not their friends.  We love our sons very much, but we love them enough to set limits and have rules.  Respect must go hand in hand with love as we raise our children or they will not be able to function in the real world.

In closing, let me ask you to imagine a time 20 years from now.  The kids are married, engaged in meaningful careers and having children of their own.  They are active in the practice of their Catholic faith and give their time unselfishly to help others in the community.  This is a happy picture and one I hope we all would like to see become a reality.  Now for the Big Questions:  Are we doing everything humanly possible to help our children achieve this kind of future?   Are we a “virtual family” or a well-balanced family with its priorities in order?

I don’t know about you, but our family still has some work to do.

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