Review: The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD with Teresa H. Barker. Harper, August, 2013. Hardcover, 374 pages.
By Gina Stepp, The Mom Psych
Fifteen-year-old Lisa complained to her therapist about a recent school-sponsored retreat at which she and her classmates weren’t allowed to use their phones. In one “solitude activity,” explained Lisa, each student was to sit alone on a rock to experience the sensation of solitude in nature. “Why would anyone with best friends want to be alone in nature when you can text?” she asked her therapist, who happened to be Harvard psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair.
Is this the shape of life to come? Will future generations grow up in a world where people have never learned to enjoy simply being alone with their thoughts as they soak up the outdoors?
Thanks to new digital technologies, we can connect with one another more than ever before, and this can be a very positive thing. But on the flip side, says Steiner-Adair in her newly-released book, the very fact that these technologies are new presents challenges to families as we learn to incorporate them into a healthy, balanced family life without allowing them to take over.
Refreshingly, Steiner-Adair doesn’t rant against technology. The Big Disconnect offers a fair and balanced assessment of our tech-infused culture, outlining the challenges—as well as pointing out the benefits—of digital connection, while also offering parents strategies for navigating digital dilemmas.
“A family is an ecosystem,” writes Steiner-Adair with co-author Teresa H. Barker. But even as we want this ecosystem to thrive, she says, we also realize that social media, texting, screen games, and other digital pulls can pose a risk to family well-being. “The good news,” she writes, “is that we have everything we need to create sustainable families—loving, thriving human ecosystems. […] It is never too late to turn a nurturing eye to family and in the process to update attitudes or patterns that aren’t working as you’d like.”
How does one go about doing this? In practical terms, Steiner-Adair shows us how we can develop seven important qualities that are shared by the most resilient, sustainable families she encounters in her work as a psychologist and Harvard instructor. Essentially, she says, sustainable families:
-Develop a family philosophy toward the use of tech. “The family has its own ways—tech and nontech—of hanging out, messing around, and geeking out,” Steiner-Adair writes.
-Encourage play, and play together.
-Nourish meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism.
-Understand the uniqueness of each person, encourage independence and individual interests, and foster their independence in the context of family.
-Have built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, transparency. Rather than simply demanding trust, they give their children good reason to trust.
-Have values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language that they share with family and friends.
-Provide experiences offline in which children can cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature.
Steiner-Adair offers real-life examples, which vividly illustrate how easily kids can conflate online illusions with real life scripts. They are all the more vulnerable to this when their time spent in cyberspace outdistances time spent with those who love, guide and ground them in their physical space.
As parents, we are still finding our footing in a world that has changed dramatically since we were children. To Steiner-Adair, this means that we need to be aware that children need our help navigating a world we ourselves have not yet mastered. The answers to our digital dilemmas are nuanced: there are complexities to them. We need to “resist facile, fast-twitch answers,” she says. “The big questions about how we use media and tech are not simple.”
This does not mean we need to abandon what she calls “old truths.” Quite the contrary. Dealing with nuance does not mean abandoning truth: and the most basic truth, when it comes to children, is that they need our attention. “Children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family,” Steiner-Adair concludes. And while we haven’t yet succeeded in applying this kind of relationship on a global scale (as she argues we desperately need to do) nevertheless, “we can deepen connections, cultivate closeness, and push pause more often to savor the gift of time and the primacy of family.”
The research support for this compelling book is extensive, but parents will find it easy to connect with Steiner-Adair’s important message. Her common sense and positive tone offer a generous measure of confidence that, yes—it’s possible to maintain close family relationships even in our intensely digital age.
Gina Savoia Stepp is a family psychology writer with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a focus on trauma, resilience and attachment. The publisher of an online science magazine titled Mom Psych, she lives with her husband and three daughters in Southern California.