How Many “iRules” Should Your Family Have?

160605-164986Technology should enhance family life, not rule it.
Published on September 29, 2014 by Susan Newman, Ph.D. in Singletons

Today’s parents — whose family life is punctuated by, even run by, smartphones, tablets, laptops, video game systems, apps, and more — face technological conflicts with their children that didn’t even exist when they were growing up.
Janell Burley Hofmann, a parent coach and author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up rightly points out that today’s parents are complexly sandwiched between a time of minimal technology and future generations who seem to depend on it every moment of the day.
When she and her husband decided to surprise their 13-year-old son with an iPhone for Christmas, Hofmann created a contract that she expected her son to abide by. Before she outlines 18 ground rules, she writes, “I hope that you understand it is my job to raise you into a well-rounded, healthy young man that can function in the world and coexist with technology, not be ruled by it. Failure to comply with the following list will result in termination of your iPhone ownership.”

The contract went viral, and lead to the writing of iRules. In iRules, Hofmann helps families find a balance between technology and essential face-to-face human interaction. She calls this attention to balance “Slow-Tech Parenting.”

I asked Hofmann to explain ways that parents can determine when to embrace tech, and when to unplug.

Q: How did writing the contract inspire you to write a whole book about iRules?

The most fascinating experience I had after writing and sharing the contract was the feedback. I heard from so many people working with youth and families —parents, educators, law enforcement, mental health counselors, grandparents — and they asked me to keep the conversation going. iRules allowed me to expand and deepen the issues tucked neatly into the original contract.

I also think the public really appreciated a practical perspective on the impacts of technology on raising a modern day family. As a mother of five children from first grade to high school, I live the joys and challenges of technology everyday. I really wanted the iRules to reflect that. I wanted iRules and tech health to be about parenting empowerment, not the overwhelming fear of what we read in the headlines. I wanted to make sure the reader had a friend in me, because I’m walking the same roads too.

Q: In the chapter, “Eyes Up, Heart Open,” you say that integrating Slow-Tech Parenting methods like keeping your phone at home during family outings helped you become more present and engaged. Could you be more specific?
When I set boundaries for myself around technology, it allows me to be fully present in whatever I am doing — work, family, socializing, exercising. It’s a practice in mindfulness: if I’m cooking dinner, that’s what I try to do. I don’t update Twitter or check my work email one last time, because I experienced how doing a little bit of everything takes me out of the moment.

If I’m helping my daughter with her homework and trying to text my friend about a health issue she’s having, I’m not truly present for either one of them. It can be frustrating, confusing and time consuming when both the personal and professional use of technology infiltrates every area of daily life. That constant crossover is robbing us of our full attention whether at our desks or the soccer fields.

Q: You encourage readers to carve out space for their own behaviors to change. What tips do you have for parents who are enamored with technology to truly slow it down?

First, I want parents to know that I understand. I understand how great technology is and I really try to celebrate the ways it makes our lives easier, enhances our communication, and streamlines our efforts. However, balance is vital to our tech health. Just like we apply balance to our other health and wellness conversations like fitness, sleep, and nutrition we need to put technology in that category, too.

I encourage parents to go without technology for portions of the day. We can start small and simple – a walk outside, on errands, during meals. This is great practice for giving us some space from constant connection. As we get a little more comfortable with the idea of being device free, we can start to challenge our families and ourselves. Some boundaries might include only responding to personal emails or texts during our lunch hour or stepping away from work communication during dinner and bedtime.

Every family has different schedules and different needs, but everyone can integrate tech breaks into their day. I know it helps me with efficiency, focus, and energy when my tech use is balanced.

Q: You speak a lot about the benefits of being bored, or unplugged from technology. Do you have advice for transitioning from tech use to being still and encouraging imagination?

As parents, we can support tech health by creating times of day or activities that are device free. Simple iRules like, no devices allowed during playdates or sleepovers, help support peer interaction, creative play and space to connect.

As a family, we can make “device-free” part of our family culture. Great places to start integrating pauses are meals, family visits, and time in nature.

Q: You recommend play, using tangible toys or activities like board games. How do these face-to-face interactions create more meaningful memories than some tech-use?

When spending quality time with friends and family, all types of activities and memories can be meaningful. Certainly, my husband and children have jokes, stories and highlights when they play a favorite video game together or if a group of my son’s friends are having a video game tournament, they are building connection and socializing.

But it’s important to come back to balance. A key is to use technology with awareness and know our children and their tendencies. We can ask questions like: Will they self monitor? Will they push boundaries? Do they show signs of addiction? Does this feel healthy?

We also must recognize the value in simple play like board games, blocks, crayons and paper. It’s about taking turns, reading expressions, imaginative play, quiet time or laughing together. It’s magnificent to watch what a child can become or create in open-ended play or when they finally win a game against an older parent or sibling!

Q: Why are tech-free interactions between family members sometimes much more meaningful?

What makes a memory meaningful is our presence. In those memories, my distractions were limited. I wasn’t checking my phone, updating social networks or even taking pictures. I was in the moment. The more opportunities we create to be in the moment, the stronger the connection to the experience.

Q: Your book mentions anecdotes describing how children have tweeted humiliating pictures of classmates, or post Facebook updates without thinking. What steps can parents take to teach children to pause and think before posting in today’s fast-paced world?

Our children are going to make mistakes — both with technology and without it. None of us is immune from that. But we can be clear on our expectations and our family values and intentions. We can teach compassion and kindness and model it, so it isn’t just a cliché, but a way of life. We need to have conversations about technology — what have they experienced or seen or felt?

We need to make sure that our children are not using technology in isolation. That we fully understand how it is used for our individual families — what feels right and comfortable for us? If our tech values are consistent with our “non-screen” values, then our families will probably have a healthy compass for tech use.

Read the complete iRules Contract.

Reference: Hofmann, Janell Burley. iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing Up New York: Rodale, 2014.

Related: Are Screens “Drugging” Your Child’s Brain?; How Digital Devices Affect Infants and Toddlers; The Big Disconnect: Parents’ Digital Dilemma; Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day; Facebook Posts That Can Put Your Kid in Jail

Copyright @ 2014 Susan Newman

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