It is an amazing time to be alive. We live in a world where we can keep in touch with friends, family, and co-workers around the world, at any time of day or night. Yet, so many of us lack family connection with our loved ones living under the same roof. So often, the very devices that keep us connected on a global level keep us distant in our own homes.
Using a smartphone is not “bad” or “wrong.” It’s when we overuse our phones that it becomes problematic. And overusing our phones is easy to do! But instead of addressing the symptoms of heavy device usage in our homes, let’s take a look at the underlying causes. What are we seeking when we turn to our phones or video games? How can we use our devices in a healthy way, and set them down when we need to? Perhaps most importantly, how can we foster family connection in the digital age? The answers to these questions may provide a pathway towards restoring facetime in our homes—and I don’t mean on an iPhone.
When we are feeling connected and understood in our relationships, we are likely giving and receiving a certain level of “emotional attunement.” Let’s define emotional attunement as “the awareness, interpretation, adjustment, and acceptance of the full range of another’s emotional states and internal experiences.” Simply put, emotional attunement from another person results in a sense of “feeling felt.” We all need emotional attunement! It is the pathway to connection—and “feeling felt” leads to feeling loved.
Parents who spend excessive time on their phones struggle to offer consistent emotional attunement to their children. They deprive their kids of eye contact, undivided attention, facial expressions, gestures, and other non-verbal forms of communication. Researchers have found that 93% of our communication is nonverbal, and that eye contact plays a significant role in the development of emotional attunement. When eye contact is consistently diverted by a device, children miss out on a basic form of receiving love. This is not to say that parents on their phones don’t love their kids—it’s just harder for those kids to know it.
At the same time, it has become the new norm for teenagers to have their own smartphones. But screens also lack the ability to emotionally attune to a child’s developing brain, or any brain for that matter. Children exposed to prolonged amounts of screen time—in lieu of face-to-face contact—find themselves with a gap in their emotional and neurological development. This lack of emotional attunement can lead children to seek connection elsewhere in order to meet their brains’ chemical needs. Although this is not always the case, adolescents who are missing emotional attunement may turn to substances, video games, sexual promiscuity, self-harm, disordered eating practices, and risky thrill-seeking behaviors to fulfill their basic needs of love and connection.
If you’re reading this, you are probably well-aware of the damaging effects screen overuse can have on familial connection. So, let’s talk about what you can do to curb this pattern, and revitalize the felt sense of love in your family.
Human relationships are naturally messy, full of conflict, vulnerability, and opportunities for self-reflection. When we filter conversations through digital media or avoid conflict by burying ourselves in our devices, we rob ourselves of the richness of rupture and repair. Healthy conflict (or, rupture) is an experience that is vital to sustaining connection (repair) because we see that someone we love still loves us even when they are upset. It is okay and even healthy to have conflict at home! The trick is knowing how to deal with it.
When emotions begin to rise at home, interactions tend to get “spicy” (yelling, throwing things, slamming doors) or “shut down” (silence, isolation, saying “everything is good” when it isn’t).
Here’s a handy tool I offer to every family I work with:
Step 1 is ALWAYS to hit the pause button. Separate. And this is important: commit to reconnection. Make a plan to readdress the conflict in 15-30 minutes. Then… feel, deal, and share.
Take a moment to actually check–in with yourself on an emotional level. What are you feeling? Is it sadness under your anger? Fear? Once you know what you’re feeling…feel it! Simply allow your emotions to exist without trying to change them. If you can avoid picking up your phone when you’re feeling something heavy, your body will process the feeling and let it go naturally.
Do some kind of coping skill. Something to care for yourself. Take some deep breaths. Go on a walk. Pick up an instrument. Journal. Draw a picture. Cook a simple meal. Meditate.
Once everyone involved is calmer, come back together and share. Use “I” messages, focusing on your own feelings and beliefs rather than placing blame, or making assumptions about the other person’s experience. Share from the heart. What are you actually feeling? This super–power is always at your disposal.
Bring your family outside! This is our natural state of being. Hanging out with our families in nature taps into our roots and makes us more human; more alive.
At the time of writing this article, time spent outdoors likely looks different for many due to the coronavirus pandemic. We are all encouraged and/or required to practice social distancing, stay close to home, and eliminate non-essential outings. See Clinical Therapist Chris Blankenship’s tips for experiencing the benefits of nature during this time. Consider your resources and options and take some time as a family to come up with creative ways to incorporate the outdoors into your daily routines.
Time spent outdoors stimulates our imaginations. Screen overuse can lead to ADHD symptoms, stress, and avoidance patterns, but nature encourages a sense of fascination. On a neurological level, “fascination” allows our brains to rest and rejuvenate. With an increase in fascination comes the creativity inherent in unstructured play. People who use their imaginations are more likely to be sociable, tenacious, and hard-working. The apps found on phones can discourage our imaginations with their predetermined layouts and functions. Time spent outdoors, on the other hand, encourages us to creatively occupy our time together, in connection with each other.
Nature offers a respite for our nervous systems by counteracting the hyperarousal caused by screen overuse. Because our basic physical needs are already cared for, nature provides a peaceful sanctuary for our brains, whereas the indoors or urban settings can overstimulate with loud noises, flashing lights, and fast cars. An unstressed brain is less likely to lose its cool when conflict arises.
Time in nature can also build self-confidence. Outdoor adventuring rebuilds the physical resiliency that we have sacrificed to the ease and convenience of our phones. It gives us the freedom to depend on ourselves—rather than Google—for building a fire, navigating a trail, and reaching our destination. This restoration of physical resiliency spurs emotional resiliency as well. We are less likely to break connection when we are emotionally resourced.
Offer a consistent sense of love to your kids (and yourselves!) through reliable emotional attunement and healthy, consistent boundaries. Be a role model for healthy screen use. Hold your kids accountable and offer consequences when their screen use becomes so excessive that it keeps you from connecting as a family. Hold yourself to the same standards. If you don’t want your children on their phones while they’re hanging out with family or friends, then try to set the phone aside when you’re spending time with your child or friends.
Ask yourself: do I have a healthy relationship with my phone? Do I reach for my devices in inopportune moments, or in times of boredom? Am I content using a computer during my work hours and watching television during my leisure hours? We so quickly become smitten with the pleasure our devices bring us that we often neglect to form healthy relationships with them.
Most importantly: we need to engage face-to-face with our kids. We don’t need to lecture them. We need to listen to their emotional experience and share our own. For it is through speaking and listening that our kids will learn compassion, form their identities, and feel comfortable entering into vulnerable relationships. This is the stuff that sustains us as humans. As beneficial as wilderness therapy is, let’s envision a world where it is not necessary.
Many of these concepts were developed alongside my colleague Jenny McDermed, and she deserves due credit for her contributions to these ideas
Graham, L. (2008). The neuroscience of attachment. Transcribed speech.
Kersting, T. (2016). Disconnected. Self-published.
Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Riley, N. S. (2018). Be the parent, please. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
Scott, D. A., Valley, B., & Simecka, B. A. (2017). Mental health concerns in the digital age. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 15(3), 604-613.
Turkle, S. (2015) Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin Press.