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‘For me, it’s knowing when it’s appropriate and when it’s not,’ says Andrea Tomkins, right.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail


This is the first in an occasional series on how digital culture affects the way we think, learn and live

Su Grimmer had a word for the young nieces and nephew who visited her in Lantzville, B.C., this summer: "Gangsters." That's because Conrad, Zola and Bronte came packing no fewer than two iPhones, one Android, three iPads and two Mac computers.

"For meal times we had a moratorium, like the old saloons where you had to give the bartender your guns," says Grimmer, a retired broadcaster. "I asked them to put their phones away and we'd engage in great, real conversations, lots of laughter. But I could sense when the meal was over that they were twitching to get back onto their gadgets."

Grimmer described the tech-free dinners as "withdrawal" for the kids, but ultimately it was auntie who did the bulk of acclimatizing, learning to summon the children for chores using text messages, and to check Facebook to determine if they'd woken up in the "teen pit" basement. "It's like Darwin," she said. "We've had to adapt or die because that's the only way you can communicate with them."

It's a common refrain from parents, one probed in the new book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Technology, writes Harvard Medical School clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, has evolved into the "hub and hearth of family life," a dynamic the author finds deeply unsettling.

"I remember this eerie feeling that our family's way of being a family felt like it was slipping away as our home computer began to dominate our children's time and attention," writes Steiner-Adair, a mother of two who interviewed 1,000 children and teens and 500 parents and teachers, as well as referencing cases from her family-therapy practice. Steiner-Adair argues that we have turned our attentions to an "online world of intimate strangers" – and blasts parents for setting a bad example. She describes mothers and fathers camped out in the blue glow of their smartphones incrementally pulling away from their home life, and children who have taken notice. What they see, warns Steiner-Adair, are unavailable, narcissistic and ultimately hypocritical parents.

For tech-junkie parents, establishing new house rules around screen time may seem ambitious, but several authors aim to help tackle the challenge this fall, a time when people feel inclined to cultivate better habits. There is The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, and The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. It's increasingly clear that many are seeking ways to recalibrate their relationship with tech – or as Steiner-Adair puts it, "maintain quality connections when we are living on connection overload."

Striking a balance has been challenging at Andrea Tomkins's house. While the Ottawa mother of two respects that technology is a social lifeline for her daughters age 12 and 14, she strives to maintain strong family interactions.

"I am a staunch believer in traditional play, yet it's gadget city over at our house," says Tomkins, who blogs about media literacy and parenting at MediaSmarts. The family has a TV, Xbox, Wii, two iPhones for the spouses and two iPod touches for the girls, as well as a tablet, laptop and desktop. "I'll look around and everyone is doing something different on their device," she says.

When the screen time feels excessive, she tries to distract the girls: "That means getting out the boardgames or going for a long walk with the dog or out for breakfast, and not even talking about the devices." The family also does "device-free dinners" and keeps a no-DVD-in-the-car policy during road trips. "For me, it's knowing when it's appropriate and when it's not. I've seen kids who play games on their devices during a hike. I encourage my kids to live in the moment," she says.

At the Olson home in Burlington, Ont., screens are plentiful, with parents and kids often multitasking on several devices at once. "We use six laptops – two work, four personal – an Xbox, PS4, Nintendo, four [smartphones], four iPods, Apple TV, a Bell Sat system and a projector for the games room downstairs," says Clark Olson, a human-resources instructor at Toronto's Sheridan College and father of two sons age 19 and 17.

Including work hours, Olson estimates that each family member spends between four and 14 hours of screen time per day. Family members will often text each other within the house, and even occasionally when they are all in the same room.

Still, Olson is reticent to limit his own screen time or that of the kids, arguing that tech gets a bad rap. "I understand it can be problem in families, but we have always been clear as parents with our expectations and the kids haven't challenged it." Devices go largely untouched on vacation and are slipped into pockets at dinner. "We've always consciously said dinner is family time. We have that half-hour to 45 minutes at the table. We dialogue and talk like anybody else would: 'What'd ya do today?'"

Before dinner, though, the father texts his sons to the table: "It's better than an intercom system."

But is it a connection, or a handy digital tether? Steiner-Adair isn't sold on the barrage of texts now flying between parents and their children. She says this type of interaction is often transactional, like "Mom, I need a ride tomorrow at 3."

"Everybody says they're communicating more with their kids by text," she says. "That's the paradox of this: We're communicating more but we're not communicating deeply. That's the disconnect."