Clarence Fanto: 'Digital Age' parenting disconnect



No wonder most youngsters are glued to electronic screens five, six, even more hours a day, according to recent surveys.

So are their parents, present company included.

To be clear, this is not another anti-technology rant. It's more of a cry for help against excessive screen time bordering on obsession, even addiction in the worst cases.

The most fascinating nonfiction book to cross my desk this summer has been one with the typically long title in vogue these days: "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age." It's by Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, and I'd commend it as must reading for parents and anyone who lives in a family, formally or informally.

No one, least of all the author, is denying that technology, within manageable time limits, is a boon to education both inside and out of the classroom. Many children are reading on tablets or e-readers, while others (thankfully) still prefer the real thing in print. Cellphones can be useful for overcoming logistical hurdles and for safety, while smartphones are convenient multimedia devices, used within reason, for the majority of Americans who now own them. But when electronic communication, texting and e-mail in particular, replaces face-to-face contact, an alarm should be sounded.

In a key passage of her book, Steiner-Adair warns: "While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes. It is the parental paradox of our time: never has there been so much opportunity for families to plug in and at the same time disconnect."

The Pew Research Center recently reported that children between 8 and 18 spend more than seven hours a day with electronics, deeply immersed in what the author terms the "digitalized life."

An industry analysis found that the average household has five devices -- smartphones, tablets, e-readers, gaming consoles and TV sets -- while nearly 10 percent have 15 devices or more. I counted up and was dismayed to find we have 10, including three iMac desktops (two of which are for professional use in our home offices).

Among teens, 37 percent have smartphones (compared to 23 percent two years ago). A separate survey found that teens say that they spend six hours a day online, and 69 percent hide their online pursuits from their parents.

The director of the Boston Children's Hospital Center on Media and Child Health, Michael Rich, told the Boston Globe this past week: "I've been impressed by the number of parents who acknowledge they have no rules or who say they do have rules -- but then when you ask the kids, they say, ‘I don't even know what the rules are.' "

Steiner-Adair, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, cites middle school as the danger zone, when laptops, smartphones, texting, sexting and online social networking swallow up the bulk of free time, often with damaging and dangerous results. The author urges parents to emphasize to their offspring: "This is not your computer. I'm your parent and I reserve the right to see everything that's going on there."

In her view, too many parents are giving up, overwhelmed by the demands of their own lives and unwilling or unable to set limits.

With a 10-year-old who's a voracious reader, writer, good student and a wizard on any and all screens, I can attest to the challenge of fighting what seems to be a losing battle, though I'm far from giving up. Limits need to be set and enforced by a set of rules that are clearly understood on both sides.

What I've learned, by trial and error, is that a parent has to be the "bad cop" at times, no matter how much one would prefer to say "yes." Parenthood has at least one thing in common with journalism -- it's not a popularity contest.

But it's a constant struggle to maintain family values, gain respect if not points for enforcing limits, and hope that the end result is an environment where personal give and take, expressed verbally and face to face, triumphs over the anti-social aspect of electronica.

To contact Clarence Fanto: or (413) 637-2551.


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