What’s More Important: Your Family—or Your Phone?

Hang up on technology addiction before all you get from your family is a busy signal.

The wait at the restaurant was 25 minutes. Should have called ahead—that will teach me. If I had a smartphone, maybe we could’ve booked ahead.

We took a seat in the waiting area. Apparently a lot of other people were several steps ahead of me. iPhones and iPads were everywhere.

Okay, I admit: I don’t get out as much as I should. But I was shocked by how many people have smartphones. I mean, not just the teenagers, and the 20- and 30-somethings, but 40-somethings on up and elementary school children on down.

That waiting room felt like a miniature Bizarro World. Aren’t restaurants places where people go to let someone else do the cooking so they can relax and communicate with each other over a good meal?

We sat on a bench across from a family of four. Nicely dressed. Looked successful. Two elementary school children. And not a single word spoken. Just silent tapping and touching of screens.

Another family of four trudged past and dropped down into some chairs to the left. Out came the iPhones. Down went the eyes. Closed went the mouths. Silence. Then a family of three. They chose to remain standing while using theirs.

It was then that it hit me. It wasn’t all those people who were weird. It was me. We were the odd ones out. I could sense the techies’ surprise when they glimpsed my family and me on the periphery of their screens. Poor, disconnected kids. So deprived. That boy must be 4 years old already. Why no iPad yet?

I counted up the techno junkies. Besides us, there were 18 others, 15 of whom were using various electronic devices. But wait. Who’s that down in the corner? Someone was reading a newspaper. I felt like running over to congratulate her. But less than a minute later, out popped the phone.

Even over dinner, we noticed how attached people are to their smartphones. A table of college-age girls next to us were sharing a night out together—so they could each play on their phones. It was as if they just couldn’t put them down.

Are They Making Us Dumber?

Is technology turning us into addicts? Recent research seems to indicate so. Scientists are now finding that the constant stimulation of gadgets such as computers and smartphones can activate dopamine cells in the main pleasure centers of the brain. Over time, and with enough usage, people come to crave—even demand—the dopamine releases.

Evidence suggests technology addiction may even be physically altering the structure of our brains, according to a study published in the June 2011 issue of the online journal PLoS ONE. Scientists did mris on the brains of college students who spent about 10 hours a day online. These students had measurably less gray matter—in the part of the brain associated with thought processing—compared to those who used the Internet two hours or less per day.

According to Antony Kidman, author of the book Staying Sane in the Fast Lane, technology obsession is radically changing relationships and ravaging mental health. iPhones, iPads and other electronic devices are directly responsible for both a rise of anxiety and depression, and a rapid breakdown in family relations, he says. They are pushing family members apart into their own individual “techno-cocoons,” Kidman says, leading families into living very separate lives.

The dangerous effects of technology addiction, especially in children, are now being realized. Experts report that schoolchildren are increasingly showing signs of addiction traditionally exhibited by drug abusers: symptoms such as obsessive and compulsive urges to constantly be online, fixations with virtual worlds, and withdrawal from real-life relationships with family and friends. Those who are addicted often get defensive about their usage, yet have trouble limiting how much time they spend on the activity. They often get distracted and have difficulty completing tasks. They lose track of time.

Does that sound like any children you know? Do they get angry when you tell them to put away the iPhone and eat their dinner?

Taking Over Our Schools

Teachers notice the problem too. “Far too many children, and particularly boys, become quite addicted to computer use,” said Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council. It is damaging their long-term development—especially their conversational ability and literacy.

Lenon warns that parents need to tightly control children’s access to computers and televisions, and that computer usage should be strictly limited to only one hour a day for children aged up to 12 and a maximum of two hours for older pupils.

Parents should refuse to buy their children smartphones until they are at least 15, he says. The dangers are just too great.

The warning follows an August 2011 study that found that children ages 8 to 17 are more likely to have a mobile phone or computer in the home than a book. The researchers said the most likely forms of reading for children were text messages, followed by e-mails and social networking.

The most common form of reading is now text messaging! Last year, the average American teen sent or received an average of more than 3,300 text messages per month. Just go to any school that allows students to bring phones: They are everywhere. In the United Kingdom, almost 9 in 10 students carry a mobile phone (compared to fewer than three quarters who say they have their own books in the home), according to the National Literacy Trust.

But letting your child have an unmonitored smartphone may be one of the most dangerous things you could do.

A Doorway to Your Child’s Mind

Phones today go way beyond dial and talk. They are a very real, very visual doorway from Joe’s website to your child or teenager’s impressionable mind.

You know Joe? Conspiracy theorist, homegrown terrorist, bomb-making, Columbine-celebrating, pornography-distributing, cop-killing, gangsta wannabe, self-mutilating, Satan-worshiping, general all-around-fun-guy Joe? Yes, that Joe! The one you unwittingly introduced your 9-year-old daughter to when you bought her the latest smartphone to take to school so she could call you if she ever got herself into trouble.

And unlike the desktop at home, which you can keep an eye on, the Internet-exploring smartphone, iPad or laptop in your child’s backpack can be a 24-hour open door to your child.

The average age at which children watch their first pornography is now just 11, according to Australian researchers Maree Crabbe and David Corlett. “Porn is our most prominent sex educator,” they say. It is the milieu in which “young people are understanding and experience sex” nowadays.

According to their study, pornography is becoming a normal part of life for many young people. “Growing up watching porn—that’s sort of where you get your grasp of what’s normal and what’s not,” said one teenage boy. “A lot of what I know about sex is because of porn,” said another.

When do you think these youths are watching porn? At home on the centrally located desk computer? Or on the phone they carry in their pocket or their friend’s iPad after school?

Porn is as addictive as cocaine or heroin, and similarly destructive, affecting relationships, marriages, character development, mental health and so much more. Do you understand the risks?

Parents: We are living in a different world than even a couple of years ago. Technology is with us 24/7. It is a virtually inescapable, although in many cases necessary, part of our lives.

But know this: You must control it—or it will control you and your family.

Reclaim Those Lost Moments

Consider your own situation. How easy is it, when you come home after work, instead of giving your spouse some attention or playing with the children, to check the news? Do you feel lost, scared or insecure when you don’t have a fully charged smartphone on hand? Maybe it does only take you 30 seconds to respond to a text message, but do you really have to keep checking your phone every five minutes? And when you stop a conversation to answer every ping of an incoming message, even if it only takes 10 seconds, you’ve already lost the moment.

How about giving your family as much time as you give your phone? The accumulation of those 30 seconds isn’t just measured in hours, but in pages—even chapters—out of your family’s life.

During the 30 seconds you spent checking your stock quotes or sports scores, you missed your budding 3-year-old sports star’s sprint into the restaurant because the whole family was going out to dinner together for his favorite food. Had you not told your daughter to “just wait another minute” for the third time in as many minutes while you finished updating your Facebook profile, you might have noticed that she really wanted to talk to you about something important to her.

Are the lost moments worth it?

My wife mentioned that when she takes our son to gymnastics, most of the other moms barely even watch their children. The only time they seem to look up from their devices is if their child has to go to the bathroom or the coach brings their child out for misbehavior.

Parents: Do you want to be involved with your children? Are you interested in how they’re progressing, what they are struggling with, where they excel?

At the end of the day, no one really cares how many Twitter followers or Facebook “friends” you once had—not even you. What really matters is your family and your actual relationships.

Smart devices might be some of the greatest inventions of all time. They allow instant access to information, they can help with scheduling and time management; they can connect you face-to-face with distant friends.

But sadly, these smart little devices can also become perfect assassins of real, human, flesh-and-blood, vibrant and alive, heartfelt and sincere family time. They can be the destroyers of lives.

It is reported that J. Paul Getty, supposedly one of the richest men to ever live, once said that he would happily give all his wealth in exchange for a happy marriage. How many people are setting themselves up to someday, at the end of their lives, wish they could go back and praise the first feeble steps their daughter took—which they missed because they were too busy to notice? Or go back and see the look on their son’s face when he hit his first home run—which they missed because of the glare on their screen? Or take more time to notice from the beginning that their teenager was being verbally bullied day in and day out through her Internet phone—and help to change her whole high school experience?

Don’t be one of those people. Take the time now to reconnect in a real, personal way with your family before it is too late.

Curing Addiction

If your children already have addiction problems, take action immediately, before it gets worse.

As parents, it is our job to control what is in our homes and what our children are doing. We need to teach our children how to handle the technology we give them. We have to make sure that its use is supplementing, not hindering, their development. And we need to put safeguards in place until they are ready to head out on their own.

Do what you need to do. Replace the smartphone with a basic calling-only version. Monitor computer usage. Curtail or even throw out the video games. If necessary, detechnologize your family.

Your children may not like you for it now. They may kick and scream and even say they hate you. Detoxification is never easy. But they will love you for it later!