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Enhancing Relationships with Our Families Not Our Phones

By Dr. Jay Greenfeld

I was talking with a friend of mine while we waited for our children to finish swimming lessons. She revealed to me that she continues to rely on a traditional pen to paper address book that has all her friends' addresses and phone numbers. She indicated that having access to this book will ensure that she will never become too dependent on her phone. Unfortunately, relying on methods from the past is the furthest from the norm. Both parents and more so children have become so dependent on their phones to entertain them, store their photos, save their contacts, and the other hundreds of things that phones are used for (not including calling people). It is not solely an issue with your children, it has come to my attention that we as adults are equally as guilty for relying on our phones much more than we would like to admit.

As my son slowly approaches his 1st birthday we have hundreds of videos and pictures that have captured his first year of life. As convenient as it is to have all the pictures in one place and the ability to share them instantly with many people, it has become more of a concerning blessing for his generation. Our reliance on what may be more convenient is debilitating and limiting many more aspects of our lives. The more reliant we are on our phones, the less we rely on fundamental skills that help strengthen different areas of our brain. Without needing to remember phone numbers because they are stored as names or nicknames in our phones, we lose that ability to strengthen our working memory. Without needing to pay attention to how we are navigating driving routes including street names and landmarks, we are losing our sense of direction and paying less attention to what we are doing when in the car. By not using a formal desk sized calendar to track our events, we are leaving it in the hands of our phones to remember important dates for us. Most importantly, we are sending more messages to people rather than seeing them or spending time with them. As our face to face contact decreases, we start to lose touch with key fundamental social skills and then panic when we have to leave a voicemail. By not using and strengthening various aspects of our brains, our phones are in more control of us than we are of them, regardless of age.

For our children, the phones have become equivalent to a vital limb or organ and when parents take the phones away, the common response from children is that they cannot function without it often leading to immediate hysterics. Start paying closer attention to how much time is spent using the phone in your home. Rather than it being a consequence for your children if they misbehave, put forth little effort at school, or neglect their chores or priorities, it might be more helpful to use the phone as a reward and not removing it as a consequence. When they do their chores or their homework then reward them with phone use. They will tell you they need to have their phone to message their friends while doing their homework. If they are messaging their friends while doing their homework, they are not doing their work. The tendency for us to get distracted by the buzz, the bell, or some type of superfluous notification is only increasing our lack of focus and inefficiency when doing work. Rely less on the phone being the tutor and the babysitter and instead start to create additional options for your children with and for them.

I would also encourage you, as a parent, to make an effort to have your children try and function for multiple hours at a time without their phones. It is okay for them to learn how to respond to boredom rather than avoiding boredom by surfing their phones as the web gathers data about their preferences. Consider making it a priority that when everyone in the family is home, phones go in the kitchen, turned on airplane mode, and then create additional activities, complete school work, or dare I even say it, communicate with one another. Countless parents emphasize how limited their time is with their family members as they travel between activities. Then, when everyone is home and there is a small window of opportunity to connect with quality time, the common response is to turn to the phone.

Your role as the parent is to mirror behaviours you want your children to follow. Even if you are relaxing and watching TV with your children, playing a board game, or playing outside, leave your phone somewhere else. We are no different than Pavlov's classically conditioned dogs, and we are likely to react when we hear the bell or notification. If your phone is beside you when you are with your children, you are more likely than not to react to the notification, hence lose focus on what you are doing, and as a result miss the moment of truly be present. Without realizing it, when we start to have the thoughts that we cannot function without this single device, we start to slip down a very slippery slope of potential addiction and dependence.

Although an addiction to electronics and in particular phones does not have a formal diagnosis like some of the substances, start to pay closer attention to your children's reliance on their phone use and more so your own. If our children live what they learn and they learn by what they see, how much are they seeing you on your phone? How often are you just sending a quick text, just responding to a quick email, just checking something online or just reading a quick notification? These little moments of "just this" and "just that" are taking away from the time you can be spending as a family and/or with individual family members or strengthening other mental skills. Try to set different parameters for your children so they are not so dependent on their phones and do not need to have everything instantly. Ensure that your children are using their working memory to do mental math without their phone calculators and calling their friends and using active social skills face to face instead of sending instant snaps and messages. Put your phone away for a few hours and set limits on when you use it so that your moments in life are not the ones captured through the a folder of images, but more so memories you are part of.

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Enhancing Relationships with Our Families Not Our Phones

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