We❜re Spending More Time ❛Alone Together❜ With Our Kids Because Of Device Addictions

  • Parents Only

It's quite heartwarming to hear that we are spending more time with our kids than any other generation. But are we really? Research suggests that even though we are in close proximity to our children, the time is not spent directly with them.... because we are all using devices. Experts are calling this 'alone together' time and it's having damaging effects on our relationships, our minds and our children's development. 

Two researchers (Killian Mullan from Oxford University and Stella Chatzitheochari from the University of Warwick) looked at the habits of 5,000 British families and found that between 2000 and 2015, parents with kids aged 8-16 spent 9% more time together: 379 minutes per day in 2015, versus 347 minutes per day in 2000.

The families also spent roughly the same amount of time on “shared activities,” such as eating meals and watching TV.

But the biggest change was the rise in “alone-together” time which jumped by 43% over the period of study, to 136 minutes per day in 2015.

"Increased use of devices in the home can reduce the quality of family relationships, increasing family conflict and disengagement, and placing the child at risk for negative health outcomes," says Dr Anna McKinnon Clinical Psychologist from Sydney. 

The Rise Of The Screenager

With phones in our way we have less face-to-face time with our kids, less interaction and less of the important 'two-way' conversations. Then there's the more immediate effects on our kids, like any form of addiction, which can cause disruptive behaviour. 

"It’s striking that, of the many children and families I help each year, the overwhelming majority of parents report that the biggest source of conflict within their homes is screens," says Anna. 

"I often hear stories of children who are otherwise calm and centered engaging in volatile behaviours, such as yelling, screaming or even becoming violent when told ‘get off your device’."

Screen Use Is Killing Communication

With so many ways to communicate digitally, conversation seems to be becoming a dying art-form. Face-to-face conversation is essential for our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy. It also brings us happiness through making human connections.

"Many teenagers I see tell me their incessant checking of social media is a core driver of anxiety and low mood" explains Anna. "More and more, I am helping children who struggle to socialise face-to-face or even over the telephone because text messaging is their main medium of communication."

Furthermore it is making us lonelier than ever. Alone-together can be used to describe the interactions we have with others online. 

"Problematic screen use can contribute to loneliness, anxiety, anger issues, poor grades, fewer hobbies and interests, less competent social skills, and low self-esteem," adds Anna.

But Is It All Bad News?

Before you throw out all of your devices and move to a farm to communicate solely by snail mail, it's important to remember that screens and smart phones can also enrich our lives.

"Social media and online gaming mediums are important mechanisms children and teenagers used to communicate with each other. Teenagers often tell me they have developed meaningful friendships, which started on SnapChat or Instagram," says Anna.

"Children can gain a sense of meaning and accomplishment from virtual activities. For example, I recently saw a teenager who published her talent on Instagram and amassed a huge following. Prior to setting up the account, she was socially anxious and low in self-esteem, but since doing this (along with learning other valuable coping strategies during therapy) I have observed dramatic improvements to her confidence."

Some Tips For Family Bonding Without Screens

  • Set device free times for the family.
  • Create an environment where children feel comfortable to freely talk about their thoughts and emotions without judgement. Regularly ask your child about their thoughts and emotions about important issues. If you have had an argument, come back and talk about this with your child later as these moments are crucial opportunities for bonding.
  • Set up a daily gratitude habit over dinner in which each family member talks about three things they were thankful for that day.
  • Cultivate your child’s interests and passions in a variety of interesting and ‘technology free’ enriching activities, both in the home, in nature and other social areas.
  • Each week, have a family member pick an activity that does not involve screens, and then do it together as a whole family.
  • Set up rituals with members of the family and regularly engage in them (e.g., going for coffee on Saturdays).

We're all guilty of using screens as babysitters, or simply spending too much time on them ourselves. Try and be mindful of your own screen usage, not just your children's. Sometimes it's just about putting your phone in another room when the kids are home. Let's all try and spend more time 'together-together' with our families. 

Dr Anna McKinnon, a Sydney Psychologist who specialises in the treatment of anxiety disorders and adjustment following traumatic events. She empowers children and adults to improve their emotional health, deal with challenges and make other positive changes in their lives. Find out more here.