More Apps and Devices Won't Fix Family Isolation

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CC BY 2.0. Michael Coghlan

When something causes a problem, you get rid of it. You don't add more of it.

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result." This quote came to mind as I read Jan Dawson’s ire-invoking call for more technology and apps to bring families together. It sounds like an oxymoron to my ears, but Dawson, a tech analyst, is entirely serious.

In an article called “We need more apps and devices designed to help families connect to each other,” Dawson states that technology has resulted in unprecedented levels of isolation. Most devices and apps focus on individuals, which means that family units are compromised as each person retreats into their phones or tablets in order to interact with a virtual world.

The solution, in his eyes, is the development of more family-unifying apps, more family-friendly content, improved device sharing, and better learning about and making recommendations for families. These would help to combat the isolation brought on by algorithms designed to learn about us as individuals, not as family units, and could empower families “to build connections and relationships and to form bonds.”

I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I think it's insane, according to Einstein's definition.

If technology is creating a serious problem, namely isolation – and even Dawson, an avid tech user, admits this – then why assume it should be part of the solution? Why would more of a thing that many educators, psychologists, and researchers agree is already consumed in excess of what’s considered healthy, or even safe, for kids be a logical solution? That is irresponsible.

What Dawson clearly does not grasp is that some families do not struggle with isolation in the way that he does – precisely because they have consciously chosen not to give precedence to the devices in their lives. He says his kids are too young to be ferried between music lessons and soccer practices, and yet his “oldest child has begun using her own device as opposed to relying on shared iPads.” Here’s my piece of unsolicited parenting advice: Get her off the iPad, sign her up for soccer and music several times a week, and that isolation problem will dissipate. You’ll may even have conversations while driving together in the car.

I believe the solution lies in the opposite direction, away from the devices that undermine family togetherness. It’s by disconnecting that families will reconnect. The only problem: this isn’t nearly as sexy as developing more fancy apps. It’s old-fashioned and boring in the eyes of tech addicts.

But it works, as I’ve learned over the years.

Instead of seeking apps to “recreate the old board-game experience for a digital age,” my family plays actual board games. Imagine that. My kids get to develop their fine motor skills maneuvering physical pieces, shuffling cards, and knocking over dominos. We have a blast.

Rather than burying my nose in an app that strives to organize my family’s busy schedule, we talk about our plans for the day. We write them on a calendar and post notes on the fridge where everyone can see them. I don’t expect my kids to “check in” to a location upon arrival; that would erode the sense of independence I want them to develop by being off on their own.

It’s important to realize that the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its screen time guidelines, stating that children under 18 months should have zero screen time, not even a TV on in the background. Children between 18 months and 5 years should get no more than one hour daily. These recommendations, if taken seriously, leave little room for “family-friendly technologies” to play a larger role in people’s lives. In fact, I’d say it’s downright neglectful, bordering on abusive, to connect children more than they already are.

Digital connection is not what the kids want. Kids want their parents to be entirely present in the moment, to spend their hours and days filling life with rich experiences that will turn into beautiful memories. At the end of the day, what do you want your kid to remember about their childhood? The forts you built together and the rain-day Monopoly games, or the hours spent flicking through Netflix’s collection of family-friendly content?

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and those days fly by awfully fast when you’ve got little kids.