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The Big Disconnect: Connecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Catherine Steiner-Adair 

Reviewed by Sarah Stewart
{Headlines} August 2013

In 2013, the awe and draw of technology are an ever-present aspect of modern life. Smart phones, tablets, laptops, the Internet, online communities, social media- these technologies have reshaped and are reshaping our world and how we live and operate in it.  

Parents and educators alike are fully aware of this shift as they grapple with its impact – positive and negative - on child development. They are eager to embrace the benefits of technology, but anxious to manage its liabilities. In The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, weighs in. With more than 36 years’ experience, Steiner-Adair is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist, a school consultant, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a staff member at McClean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, MA. 

Steiner-Adair has counseled countless families and student bodies in crisis or wrestling with issues brought on by the complexities of the digital age. Examples include parents unable to connect with their children; children unable to connect with their parents; kids being bullied by their peers; and the effects of children’s exposure to inappropriate adult content. 

However, Steiner-Adair found some families who were able to side-step these problems and ally themselves with technology for greater creativity and connectivity. A set of similar characteristics emerged, creating a profile she calls: the Sustainable Family. 

“The Sustainable Family is a family that has created a fabric of connectivity that is strong and many layered,” she said. “It can deal with a crisis with elasticity, without unraveling. It is flexible, not brittle, and has high tensile strength forged by spending time together.”

In her book, Steiner-Adair identifies seven principles for creating sustainable families, but those principles can be further summarized into three realms that are connected by a fourth. The first realm is relationship. Sustainable families prioritize healthy relationships. They value the uniqueness of individual members and support and encourage each other. They make memories; they play; they hang out. They spend time face-to-face. They explore nature and take vacations. They cultivate safe environments, where members can be real and vulnerable.

The second realm includes structure, rules, and discipline. The sustainable family fashions their own rules, which fit their values and needs. The rules are followed by all members, including parents, and are discussed and changed as needed. The rules are understood to be in the family’s best interests, and as it relates to technology, include topics such as netiquette, video games, proper cell phone usage, digital citizenship and more. 

The third realm of the family is extended social support. The sustainable family is connected to an extended network of family and friends that share their history, values, and experiences. This greater network reinforces the culture and identity of the family, and provides a safe arena for children to expand their social skills and feel part of a larger community. 

Lastly, these three realms - relationship, rules, and an extended network of support- are connected and maintained by open communication. In sustainable families, children are taught to dialogue and debate. These families have lengthy conversations on a range of topics. They are taught to respectfully disagree and resolve conflicts. They learn critical social skills that will allow them to navigate larger arenas. 

Steiner-Adair says these concepts of healthy relationships, structure, community and communication translate into the educational arena and can help teachers impact their students. She says the mission of schools is no longer to simply give knowledge, but to teach students to sift critically through information and messages, and form their own opinions. They need to develop interpersonal and communication skills so they can connect with others. Technology should be something that supports this mission as a tool, she said.

“We can’t let the sway of new tools distract us from old truths,” she says. “As a species, the human spirit thrives in the context of good relationships and a sense that we are all fundamentally connected to each other and part of something larger than ourselves.”

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