CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Texting. Tweeting. Facebooking. Emailing. iPad, iPod, smartphone. Surfing the Net. Flipping the remote.If you've had a family gathering lately, I'll bet at least one member -- if not most -- were tuned in to some external device.Why is it so hard to just be where we are? And what toll is it taking on the family unit?I'm certainly not against technology. These devices help us to be more efficient in many areas of our lives. The problem is -- and I've wrestled with it myself -- what's the right balance of being plugged in and unplugged?
While there's no universal answer, just take a look around. People are running into one another -- or light poles -- as they're walking while talking on cellphones. Car crashes are accelerating as a result of distracted drivers (although the "no texting while driving" pledges and laws ought to help). A restaurant server told me recently he waited on a family of four, and all of them were buried in their smartphones. He was barely able to get their attention to place their food orders!The Kaiser Family Foundation has found that kids are spending about 6.5 hours a day using electronic media. And, in addition, they're packing more media exposure into that time -- about 8.5 hours' worth, thanks to "media multitasking" -- listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and texting all at the same time.So, what's the impact of this media consumption? And how are these devices changing the ways we learn, reason and interact with one another? Not to mention our families, friends, teachers, co-workers and society in general?Social scientists are just beginning to tackle these questions. According to Time magazine, multitasking kids may be better prepared for today's frenzied workplace. However, many cognitive scientists are alarmed by the trend."Kids who are texting while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run," says Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.And this isn't just happening with kids. On the flipside, younger children resent the time their parents are plugged in and ignoring them. Here are a few comments gathered by Dr. Michelle Borba, educational scientist and author:"She's always on her BlackBerry. It's sooo annoying." "I hate it when he's talking on his cell. It makes me feel sad." "I put a timer on the computer. When it goes off, it's time to play with me."Each chat, text or click makes kids feel like they don't matter to their parents, according to Borba, when citing a study of 4- to 7-year-olds. Ouch!Reminds me of the old "Cat's in the Cradle" song -- where the dad didn't have time to play with his son. And then when the kid was grown -- and the dad wanted to spend time with him and the grandkids -- the son didn't have time for him (repeating the pattern).The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self has been analyzing how parental technology use affects kids. Director Sherry Turkle's research has turned up widespread feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition.A quick tip is to set aside some sacred times -- family meals, school activities, sporting events and after-school pickups. I once heard that the first two minutes of an encounter sets the tone for the entire quality of the conversation and interaction that follows. This holds true with spouses as well as children. Sometimes my husband, John, and I rewind and call a "do-over" if one of us is preoccupied upon greeting the other.
So, how did we get this way? It didn't happen overnight, and it's not going away. Author Bruce Feiler has spent the past few years on this quest. In his book, "The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play and Much More," Feiler cites a surprising theme.The key is to develop a strong family narrative. What? Tell more stories? Although this doesn't sound very groundbreaking, it turns out that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when faced with challenges. Maybe it has to do with feeling more grounded (and not in the punitive sense).Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, has studied the dissipation of the family. He and his colleague, Dr. Robyn Fivush, developed an instrument called the "Do You Know" scale. Here are some sample scale questions:Do you know where your grandparents grew up?Do you know where your mom and dad (or stepparents) met?
Do you know the story of your birth?Do you know about an illness or some tragedy that's happened in your family?
Duke and Fivush asked families 20 scale questions and recorded their conversations. Then they compared the children's results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken and reached an overwhelming conclusion: The more children know about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-confidence.The "Do You Know" scale turned out to be the study's best single predictor of children's emotional health and happiness. "We were blown away," Duke said.On a synchronistic note, my fellow columnist Bill Ellis reminded me that today, Sept. 8, is National Grandparents Day. Marian McQuade, of Oak Hill, is its founder. And Congress passed the act "to honor grandparents ... and to help children become aware of the strength, information and guidance older people can offer."The "power of story" is well known to speakers, writers and teachers as well. Maybe it's time to bring the concept to the family dinner table. Or embark on a joint genealogy project through Ancestry.com.Do you know?Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.