With our homes now serving as our offices, schoolroom, and intergenerational living spaces, the need to establish bonded familial relationships is more critical than ever. The past year has introduced new vocabulary words such as “Zoom” into our lexicon. We’ve experienced technology both as a window to the world and as a strain on our patience.
That’s why the Covenant Eyes ebook CONNECTED: How Strong Family Relationships Lead to Internet-Safe Kids is a concise, timely resource that should be required reading for every parent. Written by speaker, author, retreat leader, wife, and mother of three Melissa Foley, this five-chapter book underscores the value of true family connectedness in protecting children and teens from the dangers of hidden pornography use and the risk of other technology addictions.
Foley aptly begins her work with an introduction on the problem of disconnection by sharing a personal story with “Patrick,” a married gentleman who had consulted with her in relation to issues in his marriage. She soon discovered that early and accidental exposure to pornography in his youth had set Patrick up for false ideas and a series of lies that continued to overpower his self-worth, his familial connections, and his relationship with God. Disconnection first from his family of origin and specifically from his mother later resulted in faults and incongruities in his own marriage.
Next, the author turns to the story of “Olivia,” a teen whose disconnection from her own family, where screens took the place of loving conversation and family time, placed her at greater risk to be victimized by an unintended exposure to pornography. Foley shares the results of a 2016 study conducted in a U.S. Catholic high school where male students, responding anonymously, reported that 11% reported that they had never watched pornography at all.
The template for CONNECTED makes the case first for our origin as beings connected by God who IS relationship and has created us to live for relationship as well. Next, establishing a strong statistical connection between a disengaged familial system and resultant sexual compulsions in adulthood, Foley offers us tools to assess our own technology overuse, gently reminding us that “the connection we will find in our children far outreaches what we can find on our phone any day.”
With our own habits having been examined, Foley next underscores the connection between spouses as “the first and foremost relationship in a family,” building a strong case for the fact that our children actually need far less attention than what our marriages should be given. Addressing the fact that some marriages are inherently disconnected by the use of pornography, the author provides a brief overview of some of the resources offered by Covenant Eyes as a tool to bridge the gap between relationships and technology with the reminder that positive practices in marriage can and will bear fruit in family connectedness.
In a wonderful chapter on connecting with our children, Melissa Foley speaks of the concept of “Heaven-Bound Parenting,” where “our primary responsibility is to help our children to know, love, and serve God, and to spend eternity in Heaven with Him.” Offering several proactive strategies for creating family connectedness, the book addresses not only tips for normal family life but also how to prepare for the inevitable challenges of parenting teens and preparing for moments of failure and brokenness with tender, unconditional love.
CONNECTED concludes on a hopeful note, with both a “Prayer for a Connected Family” and a helpful appendix full of data and information on the harms of pornography usage.
To understand the context for CONNECTED and its value in our COVID-era overly-wired environment, I reached out to two professionals whose daily work takes them into direct contact with today’s busy families to discuss some of the book’s main lessons. Dr. Michael DiPaolo, a clinical psychologist and Imago relationship therapist, offered terrific insight into how the pandemic and our increased exposure to technology have impacted teens’ relationships with family and friends.
“I want to approach this from a different angle,” said Dr. DiPaolo. “It is the lack of in-person, physically present with one another connectedness that is hurting our teens in ways beyond what we see. Yes, we hear their cries of missing each other, the social events, the extracurriculars. Who would imagine we’d ever have a whole generation of teenagers begging to go back to school! We’re seeing high levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidality because of this. But we’re also starting to see some of the same symptoms as these same kids start to see one another again. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten how to connect with one another. And given that adolescence is a time of learning how to do that, it’s no wonder that not being able to do that for a solid year is having that effect.”
“From this perspective, thank God for the technology,” DiPaolo continued. “The ability to see and interact especially with peers on Zoom (and other platforms) is critical. While missing it greatly, my own son has managed to stay involved with extracurriculars and connected with friends. Pre-COVID I would have shuttered to think he’d be spending several hours a day online, but right now it’s necessary. The downside is that this is still URL and IRL. There is no replacing being able to be physically present with other people. Further, this increased time online also invites greater withdrawal into activities that do not serve a healthy purpose. It’s almost as if what is on social media is real life for teens, and this isn’t good.”
Amy Cattapan, Ed.D, an author and educator with over twenty years in the classroom, teaches in an environment that currently offers simultaneous in-person and remote learning for her students. For Dr. Cattapan, whose students are using technology not only for school work but also for socializing with friends in positive ways, there are some simple ways that families can better manage the use of screens in their homes.
“Technology can be addictive (for both adults and teens!) so it’s good to set some time limits and expectations,” offered Dr. Cattapan. “For example, set a time when all devices need to be turned off and plugged in so that they can charge for the next day. Children and teens may need an hour before bedtime to “unplug” and wind down. Find a central spot in the house (not the child’s bedroom) for the devices to charge so there is no temptation to get up in the middle of the night and start using it.”
Dr. Cattapan also shared a teacher’s wise perspective on ways that families can embrace today’s technology-based learning environment to foster connectedness. “With so much work being completed and turned in digitally these days, ask your child’s teacher what apps or programs you can use to best review school work and progress with your teen,” Dr. Cattapan advised. “Find a time, perhaps once a week, to sit down with your teen and ask them to show you some of the assignments they have been working on. Ask them what work they did this week that they are most proud of or what lesson they found the most interesting. If the teen doesn’t know where to start, a quick email to teachers can often point you in the right direction for how you can use the technology to have meaningful conversations with your children about their schoolwork.”
Acknowledging that arguments over screen-time is not new in homes, Dr. DiPaolo gave a refreshing perspective on how to change the paradigm around such conversations. “Pre-COVID the battle between parents and teens centered around how much time is spent online – an endless power struggle if ever there was one!” said DiPaolo. “I would invite the shift to looking at how the time is spent online. Since we’re seeing the necessity and benefits of being online during the pandemic, let’s talk about how the time is being used. We can even praise our kids for using it in good ways!”
Teachers and the Church as an Aid to Connectedness
When asked how the Church and those who serve on her front lines might be allies to families who want to foster deeper connections with one another, both Dr. Cattapan and Dr. DiPaolo built on themes addressed by Melissa Foley in CONNECTED.
Amy Cattapan recommends that families see their children’s teachers as an advocate for family connectedness. “With so much work being completed and turned in digitally these days, ask your child’s teacher what apps or programs you can use to best review school work and progress with your teen,” counseled Dr. Cattapan. “Find a time, perhaps once a week, to sit down with your teen and ask them to show you some of the assignments they have been working on. Ask them what work they did this week that they are most proud of or what lesson they found the most interesting. If the teen doesn’t know where to start, a quick email to teachers can often point you in the right direction for how you can use the technology to have meaningful conversations with your children about their schoolwork.”
“The best response from the Church can be to embrace this new reality and see the opportunities,” said Dr. DiPaolo. “One gift my parish has received is a growing connection to the ‘diaspora’ – people scattered around the country and world who are connecting because of Livestream masses and Zoom presentations and gatherings. We all want connection. For families, this means creating online opportunities that speak to the needs of families, e.g., Moms’ groups, children’s liturgy of the word, and teen-friendly ministry.”
Fully recognizing that not simply technology usage but all aspects of COVID have strained families to the breaking point, Dr. DiPaolo cited statistics on the 20% of married couples who admit to a strain in their relationships due to the pandemic. “When couples struggle – no matter how much they think they hide it – their kids struggle,” he stated.
“Disconnection fuels addiction. In addition to the anxiety and stress, we’re also seeing increased addictive behaviors,” Dr. DiPaolo continued. “Alcohol and marijuana sales have gone up significantly during COVID. The more disconnected we feel, the more we turn to something to fill the void, to numb us from the discomfort. The opposite of addiction is connection. That is why it is so important that we’re having this conversation.”
As the conversation on technology, family relationships, and connectedness continues, it’s tremendously helpful that families have new resources such as Covenant Eyes’ ebook CONNECTED: How Strong Family Relationships Lead to Internet-Safe Kids to help prioritize happy, healthy homes.