Most parents today are well aware that technology is offering huge benefits and immense challenges to child rearing.
A voracious young reader has immediate access to the world’s library through tablet technology, but he also is tempted by a wide array of mind-numbing and violent video games. A pre-teen is accessible to her parents by cellphone but the helpful communication tool can also invite the frightening world of social media into her room when the door is closed.
Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, in her new book, “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” does an excellent job of detailing the eye-opening threats of technology on children from infancy to young adults, and providing straightforward, practical advice on how to address them.
“While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes,’’ Steiner-Adair writes. “It is the parental paradox of our time: never has there been so much opportunity for families to plug in and at the same time disconnect.”
The eight-chapter book begins with the setup: Our lives have been indelibly changed by technology and parents are struggling to keep up. On average, children ages 8 to 18 are spending more than seven hours a day on electronic devices.
She also focuses on something less understood: Parents are pulling away from family life, lost in their own smartphones and screens, leaving many children feeling neglected and lonely. The “digitalized life,” she argues, is taking its toll on us — altering the way children think and relate and pulling families apart.
What parents need to do is help keep children grounded. “For that kind of textured, nuanced conversation, reflection and hashing things through, tech can’t deliver. That’s what parents are for,” she says.
The bulk of the book details the risks and effects of technology on different aged children. Babies, she explains, need their parents’ love, not the newest tech toys. Children need to develop slowly, she reminds us, building relationships and communication with the help of caretakers. “Rush a cake and it falls. Rush childhood and the time for layered learning at an individual pace is lost forever,” she says.
By middle school, we can already lose control. Technology — “laptops and smartphones, texting, sexting and online social networking” — can take over, even if you haven’t given your child his own phone. She provides helpful scripts for how to talk to children, including this one, starting with, “This is not your computer . . . I’m your parent and I reserve the right to see everything that’s going on there.”
By high school, potential for risks can explode, providing even the best behaved children easy ability to get into trouble — a mean word or bad judgment call can escalate when social media sends the news around the Web. Steiner-Adair tells parents how to talk about sex, providing straightforward language on how to tell boys and girls how to deal with peer pressure related to sexual favors.
The final chapter reinforces the main message that good parenting starts without technology, in a place where parents listen, set limits, and communicate. She provides a helpful list of rules to abide by — including a requirement that parents know their children’s phone passwords and check the gadgets when needed. Largely, she encourages everybody to slow down.
Steiner-Adair provides sound advice and much-needed wisdom during these increasingly confusing times.
Jenifer B. McKim, a former Globe staff writer, is the assistant managing editor at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University.