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How to keep technology from interfering with family bonds

Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect,” talks with fifth-graders at the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly last month.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect,” talks with fifth-graders at the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly last month.

‘Hold on!”

The continued tapping of keys.

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“Can’t you see the game’s on?”

An abrupt hand gesture to signify “Stop.”

“You know, I never get private time anymore!”

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Absolute silence.

When prompted with a “Hey dad?” or a “Mom, can you help me out with something?” these were the responses a group of fifth-graders reported receiving when attempting to get their parents’ attention while the adults were absorbed in e-mail, text messages, apps, games, or television. The 10- and 11-year-olds, students at the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly, ticked off the reactions with a mixture of bemusement, bewilderment, and annoyance during a special assembly at the private K-8 day school.

‘Children thrive in families where they feel they’re connected. Technology doesn’t love your children.’

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“Your parents love you, of course they do,” guest speaker Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and author, stressed to the small group. “Grown-ups are struggling, just like kids are struggling, to get control of who they are online.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Brendan McEachern, a 5th-grade co-teacher, took notes as Catherine Steiner-Adair conducted a session with students at the Glen Urquhart School.

We’re all guilty of it. Whether in the car, enjoying the outdoors, gathering with friends, or eating dinner with the family, our devices have an indelible pull. (“Did I ever answer that text?” “What’s everybody up to on Facebook?” “Have I earned more lives to play another round of Candy Crush Saga?”)

And, much as their elders say “it’s these kids nowadays,” it is clear that parents are just as culpable as their children when it comes to having obsessive relationships with their phones, tablets, MP3 players, and computers.

“The intrusion is really hard to manage,” said Yoshi Campbell, a Gloucester other who has a sixth-grader at Glen Urquhart.

If your phone goes off — as it inevitably will — when you are spending time with your children, you do not want to break that real-time experience, she said, but you also want to keep up with friends and work responsibilities, and not be rude or unresponsive.

According to research company eMarketer, US adults spend 12 hours and 5 minutes a day with various media. That includes multitasking in which, for example, one hour of watching television while spending that same hour online was counted as two hours. Meanwhile, children ages 8 to 18 spend 10 hours and 45 minutes a day plugged into something, based on a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser’s study found 29 percent of that time was spent multitasking, putting the total media-use time for children at seven hours and 38 minutes in a 24-hour day.

“We all are spending less time with one another,” said Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” during a talk with parents in Beverly. Technology has us constantly putting others on pause, she said, and thus can interfere with the parent-child bond.

Melrose mother Anita Meyer admitted that she has used the dismissive and “awful” phrase “Just a minute!” when she has been on the phone and her 6-year-old daughter has tried to get her attention.

“Connection trumps technology every single time,” she said. “Be thoughtful, be informed, connect. And teach your child to be and do all those things.”

Kids need genuine contact Steiner-Adair told a crowd of a few dozen parents at Glen Urquhart on a recent morning. As a mom or a dad, you want to be approachable.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Parent Anita Meyer (left) has questions and gets a book signed by Catherine Steiner-Adair (right), author of “The Big Disconnect.”

“Children thrive in families where they feel they’re connected,” she said. “Technology doesn’t love your children.”

There are definitive actions people can take to control technology in their household, rather than having it control them, she said.

To start, if you need to respond to e-mails in the morning, do it before the kids get up, so you can spend time with them before school, Steiner-Adair said. And after school, do not let children get into the habit of immediately immersing themselves in computer or video games. Dinner is a no-brainer, she said: Set a no-device-at-the-table policy and stick to it. Likewise, do not let your children take their phones or tablets to bed; collect them from each family member and secure them away for the night.

In the car, meanwhile, put all devices away, and take the opportunity to talk, relax, play educational games, daydream, or just adjust to the “ambient quiet.” On the weekends? Consider setting aside a dedicated block of “nontech” time, she said.

When it comes to social media, Steiner-Adair said, do not be “friends” with your children on Facebook, because that is awkward for everybody. But do try to know their password to be able to check in on their activities once in a while — just do not get overbearing about it.

“The most important resource that you have, by [the time they’re in] seventh or eighth grade,” Steiner-Adair said, “is your relationship with your child.”

She posed similar points in speaking with students.

How can they calm themselves after school? Read a book; play sports; dance; hang out with friends. Anything that does not involve an electronic screen.

“Games distract you, but they don’t calm you down,” she told a group of about 30 fifth-graders seated before her. “They stimulate you. They rev you up.”

She also cautioned them to be mindful of what they say and do online, noting the permanency of their actions. While impressions made in the sand wash away or fade with time, she said, a person’s digital footprint stays with them forever.

“Listen up,” she said. “Since you are in fifth grade now, we’re hoping that you will begin to break this cycle of staying on screens all the time.”

Still, she recognized that it is not all mindless time-stealing. She acknowledged to parents that there is a “wonderful educational use for technology.” The difficulty is helping children safely tap into that, rather than getting lost in it.

It is a “tremendous challenge” to figure out how to use technology in a managed and responsible way, said Kristin Cotter of Beverly, whose 5- and 6-year-olds are prospective students at Glen Urquhart.

Although she said her family plays board games every day after school, she allows her children 30 minutes of “Netflix time.”

“It is teaching them how to relax with a screen,” she said. “Should I be doing that?”

Campbell said it is disturbing how intimate a relationship people can have with their smartphones. All members of her household have some sort of device, she said, but her family does spend quality time together, including playing outside.

The goal is to keep things that way.

“We all need to have a serious and honest conversation,” Campbell said. “Create some boundaries, preserve that real connection that we all value as a family.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at TarynPlumb1@gmail.com.
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