Family Unplugged

How technology disconnects us from deep relationships

Is technology enhancing or inhibiting our ability to relate to one another? Some scientists believe our wired culture is changing the way we think and behave—and we may be paying too high a price in the relationships that matter most to us.

In some ways I feel more connected to others than I’ve ever felt before. My Facebook account allows me to get regular updates on old friends who live many hours away. My wife can send me a quick IM while I’m at work and while she’s juggling kids at home. My Google Reader lets me know about fresh news stories and blog posts from some of my favorite authors.

But more and more people are noticing how their digital lives are inhibiting their face-to-face relationships. At the beginning of June the New York Times ran the story, “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying the Mental Price.” It looked at the subject of how technology is rewiring our brains. Many researchers are finding that our plugged-in, multitasking lifestyles are making us less able to focus on the things (and people) right in front of us.

Meet the Campbells

Take the Campbell family for instance. Mr. Campbell regularly sits in his home office before two computer screens buzzing with e-mail, tweets, IMs, chat programs, and the latest computer code he is writing. He falls asleep at night with his iPhone or laptop on his chest. For relaxation, he escapes into video games with his kids. His wife and children playfully tease him about favoring technology over them. “I would love for him to totally unplug, to be totally engaged,” Mrs. Campbell said. She added that he becomes “crotchety until he gets his fix.”

Leisure time is saturated with technology. On the first night of their vacation all four members of the Campbell family just sat staring at their devices. Eight-year-old Lily has an iPod Touch, a portable DVD player, and her own laptop. Sixteen-year-old Connor has his own dual-monitor setup, one monitor playing music, the other alive with updates from Facebook and Reddit. His parents believe these distractions are to blame for the C’s he just received on his report card.

Mr. Campbell says all the technology is a mixed blessing. “If you’re not careful, your marriage can fall apart or your kids can be ready to play and you’ll get distracted.”

Balancing Online and Offline Life

My friend Dan Lohrmann speaks in his recent book about what he calls the “Seven Habits of Virtual Integrity.” Dan is Chief Technology Officer for the state of Michigan and has decades of experience in the field of computer security. He says these “Seven Habits” must become regular practices in our lives so that we can avoid the pitfalls of online life.

Habit 5 is “Balance Online and Offline Life.” In his book Dan demonstrates how unchecked Internet use at home isolates members of the same household from one another, limiting our meaningful interactions with the people we love. He offers practical tips for time management and ways to “unplug.”

  • Set parameters for your Internet surfing tasks. Don’t just get lost in cyberspace. Schedule computer time: this will ensure you don’t use all your spare time surfing.
  • If possible, limit your time online to certain times of day. Use technology that limits the times of day and the amount of time spent online.
  • Close your e-mail and turn off your IM and RSS feeds if you don’t need them to be open.
  • When doing Internet searches, have a goal in mind.
  • Keep a running list of interesting links you uncover and return to them later.
  • If you are easily tempted by things like Internet pornography, choose not to go online at vulnerable times (when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired). Find someone to hang out with instead.
  • Schedule quality time with the people you love. Choose activities away from the gadgets and devices.
  • Beware of how vacations and holidays can be eaten up by time online. Make plans to do something with others during these times.

For more tips, pick up a copy of Dan’s book, Virtual Integrity.