The Tail Wagging the Dog: Families & Cellphones | Integrated Counseling and Wellness

The Tail Wagging the Dog: Families & Cellphones

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By Camille Olson, Editor

Technology has brought some amazing things into our family lives. We are connected in ways that we never imagined when we were kids. Paradoxically, we are often more disconnected as families than ever before, as our time and attention is increasingly absorbed by electronic media. There is a concept in physical/organic systems called “disentropy,” which is the idea that living systems tend to fall into a state of disorder or disorganization without constant action or forces to keep them together. Think of a family being in a boat together trying to row upstream on a river with a strong current. Without a constant effort to maintain position or move forward, the strong current will quickly move the boat downstream. Even more insidious are the quiet and slowly moving currents beneath the surface that are almost undetectable but are carefully leading us away from our goals as families. As a mom, I’ve watched the tides shift in my family as our kids have grown and been increasingly exposed to the pressures and expectations of being fully “plugged in.” While certainly helpful in many respects, the strong effects and pull on our kids (and others) to spend more and more time in front of a screen has been alarming. At the risk of sounding old fashioned(I never thought I would say that about myself), there is a need for a “call to arms” to confront some of the risks inherent in the currents of electronic media that are moving our kids into dangerous waters. With 91% of adults and 60% of teens reporting owning cell phones (Pew Internet & American Life Project Survey), it isn’t likely that we will avoid these challenges in our families, in some form. Medical and social/behavioral sciences are finally catching up to our kids and reporting some concerning effects. In a recent Baylor University study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, James Roberts (study co-author) reported that “cell phone and instant messaging addictions are similar to compulsive buying or substance addiction and are driven by materialism and impulsiveness.” He further explained that “technologic addictions (a subset of behavioral addictions) are no different from substance addictions in that users get some kind of reward from cell phone use, resulting in pleasure. Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture, as both a tool and status symbol. They’re also eroding our personal relationships. A majority of young people claim that losing their cell phone would be disastrous to their social lives.”( This is just one example among studies that have reported “side-effects” of constant use including:

1) generating negative feelings during face-to-face conversations when the device is visible/present

2) increasing stress levels,(constant ringing, vibrating, alerts, reminders, etc.) insomnia and depression

3) increasing risk of chronic pain (pain and inflammation in joints including fingers/hands, neck, shoulders, and back)

4) increasing risk of digital eye strain, among others.

Perhaps one of the most harmful effects is the way that cell phones, texting, and social media interrupt the flow of our time together as families and the opportunity to have face-to-face, meaningful time and contact with each other. Hence, the “tail wagging the dog:” something that is a minor or secondary part of something controlling the whole.
Putting things back in place: The most important principle of change is to start where you are! One of the first challenges is to be willing to unplug, as the parent, and make time for the family. If you are willing to do that, everyone else may be more willing to follow your example. Another guiding principle of change is to understand the “why” of change. If your family understands the risks, the consequences, and the benefits of making time for each other and “parking” electronics during set times, they will be more willing to follow along. Particularly if you are using the black-out time to actually enjoy quality time together. One suggestion is to “dock at dinner” so that, as your family comes together at the end of a day, everyone shuts off, unplugs, etc. and is present with each other. The phones stay docked until you wake up the next morning with your kids. The more consistently you follow the rule, the more habitual the behavior will be and the less resistance you will get. Over time, you will help your children (and you) develop a pattern of finding ways to let the family rest from the busy, intrusive, constant, barrage of electronics.

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