Having "the Talk" With Your Screen Addicted Parents

I like how it used to be…do you remember your mom walking you to school every morning and your dad coaching your soccer team? The over-protective mother and the stay-at-home dad? Do you remember family dinner every night—uninterrupted by TV, phone calls, and text messages?

Then came the cell phone…wasn’t it fun to laugh along with your parents as they stumbled through their first few first text messages? How often did you sit with your brother or sister, scrolling through your parents ring tones over and over again?

Then came your first cell phone…it was a source of pride and a sign of your independence. By the end of your first day, you could already text faster than your parents and flaunted your insider knowledge on texting slang, Cha-Cha, and how to take the perfect selfie with that old, flip-phone camera.

Then came smart phones…followed by smart cars, tablets, glasses, watches, and apps for absolutely everything. We young people took it in stride, feeling an instant comfort level with these devices. We wear technology like fashion pieces and use them like they are going out of style.  Yet our parents stood no chance. As we surged ahead, they were still trying to unlock their home screens. We laughed at them, and they told us that we are more naturally inclined towards technology.

Fast forward to today…Instead of watching their child’s soccer practice, parents are checking their Facebook; family dinners have become another opportunity to respond to work emails; and, reminiscing with your parents now means taking selfies to remember the current moment.

Things have changed…drastically. Our parents have caught up to us and are navigating the technology world frequently, and with newfound ease.

Personally, I wish I could say my parents were not addicted to their technology. Lately it appears to rule their world. My mother runs her own business and spends all day on her computer—totally valid—and finishes her day by spending seemingly every night in front of the television. My father works for a Denver non-profit and is required to be connected all day long, responding to e-mails and emergencies. Every time I am in his company, his iPhone is out more often than not, looming over meals, walks, and talks.

My upbringing is what has made their recent habits all the more frustrating. They were the ones to teach me about the world away from screens. My first years were spent reading and playing outside, instead “rotting” in front the television. I was told to “Go out in the yard and play,” and sometimes even had the door locked behind me. If I wanted to watch television for any period of time, I had to read at least twice as long. My parents taught me how to live—to feel the leaves crunching underfoot, enjoy a real conversation over a cup of coffee, and how to look at the world through the eyes of an artist.

If you’re like me, time with your parents is precious and hard to come by. I live in a different state (currently another country) and truly value those rare moments I have to connect with my mom and dad. In recent years, I feel like technology has, at times, unjustly stolen this time from me.

So sometimes I feel like a broken record—constantly asking my parents to put their iPhones away, forget about work, turn of the TV, and be present.

When I ask, I usually expect one of three scenarios:

  1. The Boomerang: I ask, and the phone is put away quickly…too quickly. I bask in my success, smiling like an idiot who thought he won. Within a minute the phone is back out. We repeat the process again. And again. And again. Failure.
  2. The Lecture:  “Dad, can you put your phone away for a bit??” Grunt. Oh no, oh no, oh no…ABORT MISSION! “Jensen, what you don’t understand is…” Failure.
  3. The Chess Match: Sitting at a meal with one of my parents, with an iPhone in their hand, I politely ask them to put it away. The phone is placed on the table. I raise one eyebrow. “That isn’t away.” The phone moves to the corner of the table. Second eyebrow raised; head tilt slightly forward. Phone is hidden behind a ketchup bottle. I’m forced to use my last move. I let out a big sigh. “Please? I never get to see you and it bothers me when…” Phone in pocket/purse. Success?

Although frustrating at times, I have seen plenty of good come from my efforts. For example, since expressing my concern over my mother’s TV habits, she has cut it back and is reading more and finding new outlets to relax. I simply told her that I wanted to see the fun, shining woman—who was once the life of every party—find her spark again. I expressed my fear that she would have regrets if she spent the second half of her life in front of a screen. My Dad is a little harder to convince, his phone a bit slower to re-enter his pocket and his TV harder to shut off, but my constant pleading does often result in remarkable conversation about how to enjoy the world around us. I know he is insanely busy, and do truly empathize with his constant need to be connected.

I never expected to be in a position where I used less technology than my parents. And addressing it with them does create a difficult dynamic between parent and child. Whether your parents are relatively tech-free, or far more addicted than yourself, I suggest broaching the conversation of technology. Do it to create more authentic, present relationships with your parents, if nothing else. I know from experience that these conversations are tough. They can become personal, emotional, and even infuriating. But they are necessary.

Here are some tips, based on my experiences, which may help you initiate this dialogue, concerning technology usage, with your parents.

  1. First turn the mirror on yourself. Before you address any “issue” with someone, self-reflect. Personally, I am in a constant battle with myself to be intentional and reduce my frivolous technology usage. Ask yourself how you can be better, before you ask someone else to be.
  2. The hug and “I love you.” Give your Mom and Dad a hug and tell them what they mean to you. (How does this have anything to do with this technology specifically? It doesn’t, but do it anyway because nothing is more important in this life.)
  3. Be patient. You are not going to win this battle in one day. Initiate the conversation bit by bit and try not to jump down anyone’s throat; you don’t want them to get defensive. That is not what this is about.
  4. Express your true feelings. It was not until I told my mother why I was worried about her recent habits that I got through to her. You need to tell them how you feel and what your ideal relationship would look like sans technology.
  5. Ground Rules. Lay out ground rules for technology usage when you’re together. For example, “Let’s agree to not e-mail or Snapchat at the dinner table.” Of course, I am not asking you, and you should not ask your parents, to give up your technology all together. All we are trying to do is create more authentic relationships with our parents.
  6. Mix up your activities together. Go on a walk and leave your phones at home. Play Pictionary one night instead of watching another movie. Be creative.

Several years ago, you successfully helped your parents connect to the world of technology. For as much as it has helped their work productivity or their social wherewithal, the reality is, the relationship between parent and child has lost something precious. Time. Authenticity. Affection. Presence.

I believe it is long past time to reclaim what is ours and begin re-writing these relationships.

So, leave your iPhone at home, put your e-mail away, and turn off the TV. It is time to reconnect.  

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