A week without texts or tweets will do kids good

March 7, 2011

QMy wife and I have been saving up to take our three children, ages 16, 14 and 11, on a great vacation to Southern California during spring break. We will be staying in a good hotel, instead of a motel, and all of us are excited about it.

Every time we tell our kids about the hotel or the sights that we’ll see, however, they do what they always do: They rush to their phones to text and tweet their friends instead of talking about it with us.

Whatever happened to face-to-face conversation? Walks in the woods? Charades? Puzzles? And doesn’t anyone want to play Clue anymore?

It’s as if each of our children lives on a different island, near enough for us to see them but not close enough to reach.

AOur technological revolution is as hard on us as the Industrial Revolution was on our forebears, but it’s also pretty terrific.

The Internet is not only free, but it lets us find facts quicker than an encyclopedia, read a book without chopping down a tree and type a letter without using an eraser. It even remembers what we wrote, whether we remember it or not, and it lets us see each other and hear each other when we’re 6,000 miles apart.

In exchange for all that, however, it often robs us of our most precious possession: our time. And time, once spent, can never be replaced, as William Shakespeare would have known if he had tried to write his plays while sending texts and tweets every day, posting blog entries every week and playing video games whenever he got bored.

You may not want to limit your children’s screen time and phone time. But if you don’t, they might not learn to read body language, even though gestures prevail over words whenever there’s a difference. They might not explore an interest in depth when it’s so easy to flit from one to the next on the Internet. Most important of all, they may spend so much time texting that there’s not enough left to do the things they’ve never done before or learn the things they never knew.

If you want your children to have balanced lives when they grow up, you have to teach them to balance it now.

This vacation will be a great time to do that, but only after you tell them that you love them, that you miss their company and that because you want this to be a family holiday, you’re asking them to leave their iPods and cellphones at home. Tell them you’ll only use your own phone to get directions or to handle an emergency.

The prospect of a week without texting may horrify your children until they find out how much fun a family trip can be and how much they like to have singalongs in the car, to play Twenty Questions, to take turns reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” aloud instead of relying on a CD to do it for them, and to keep journals of all that they did and saw and ate. When you read what they write, you’ll realize how much this tech-free holiday can open up a child’s world and whet his curiosity.

You also should read “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” a thoughtful, well-reasoned book by William Powers (Harper’s, 2010), so you’ll know that a family is stronger, the children are more focused and their interests are more varied if all of the cellphones, iPads and computers are turned off regularly. If your children get some family time, screen time, work time and outdoor playtime every day and maybe a tech-free day (and night) every week, they won’t want to text nearly as much.

Don’t let the changes stop there, however. It’s tempting to put an old TV or a castoff computer in a child’s bedroom or to let children keep their cellphones in their rooms at night, but it’s even more tempting for them to turn them on when they should be asleep. Teenagers need at least nine hours and 15 minutes of sleep every night, and if they don’t get it, they may find it hard to concentrate at school the next day and may even get depressed or develop high blood pressure.

Whether you do all this or not, you’ll want to install parental controls on any computer in the house, because it’s easier to stop a problem before it starts than to correct it afterward. To find the best controls and the best ways to prevent cyberbullying, sexting and inappropriate contacts, go to www.fosi.org, the clear, simple Web site of the Family Online Safety Institute. This international nonprofit organization will give you the resources you need to protect your children.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

The prospect of a week without texting may horrify your kids until they find out how much fun a family trip can be.

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