When Angela Lee realised that her eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son were hooked on her tablet device and smartphone, she knew that a digital fast was in order.
“The first thing they’d do when they arrived home from school was to go online, either on our desktop computer or my tablet device,” shares the 39-year-old finance manager. “Our helper could never get them to log off, not even to eat or do their homework. It got to the point where I was calling the house several times a day, just to tell them to get offline and remind them that they had homework to do.
“I thought, ‘I can’t keep doing this’. I was also worried that their schoolwork would suffer because of their preoccupation with gadgets.”
So with her husband’s support, Angela had a pep talk with her kids and put her family on a tech “detox” the following weekend.
“My son couldn’t sit down to a meal without a smartphone in his hands,” Angela adds. “That’s when it hit me that, unless I staged an intervention of sorts, my kids would grow up to be tech addicts – something I didn’t want.”
Hooked on tech
It’s a well-known fact that over-exposure to the Internet and tech devices can have negative effects on one’s concentration and focus.
But Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, adds that people who spend too much time online may also have poor social skills. “Being in this ‘tech comfort zone’ makes it easy for them to ‘switch’ off and lose interest in everything that’s going on outside of that environment.
“They may only communicate when necessary and not know how to read others’ expressions and body language. They may also have trouble expressing their emotions and be less caring towards others.”
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness at Gleneagles Medical Centre, agrees. “Social isolation is a very real problem for people who are hooked on gadgets. It’s not uncommon to see such individuals neglect their social responsibilities because they are so lost in that digital world. Youngsters who miss out on opportunities for social interaction may end up with poor social skills when they’re older.”
Family conflict and disconnect
The Internet can cause problems, not just within the individual, but between family members, too, according to a study conducted by Kapersky Lab and iconKids & Youth.
The research, published in July 2016 and which surveyed more than 3,700 families around the world, found that about 20 per cent of parents and children feel that the Internet can be the cause of family arguments, rising to 64 per cent of parents who feel they are no longer the primary contact point for their children.
And you would think that parents were the first ones their kids would go to for questions or advice, but according to the study, one in four (23 per cent) parents say that their kids now prefer to go online rather than talk to them.
Families also tend to sacrifice quality time together when they spend too much time online – something that Dr Lim says can also cause a strain in relationships. “Before the Internet and gadgets came into the picture, families would sit together and watch TV or just talk,” he points out. “But now, we see Mum, Dad and the kids all glued to their individual smartphones, laptops or tablet devices. Nobody talks to one another as much anymore, so we don’t know what’s going on with our kids or spouses.”
“When there’s very little face-to-face interaction, we forget how to relate to one another after a while,” Daniel adds. “We may take our family members for granted, be dismissive of their problems or just stop communicating. This can have dire consequences on our relationships and make the people we live with feel isolated and rejected.”
How to do a family digital detox
If you’re worried about your little ones becoming socially isolated or want to improve communication between everyone at home, you may want to consider giving your family a tech break. Going two or three days without the Internet or tech devices can help reduce your kids’ dependency on them and open them to new ways of spending their free time.
There’s a way to go about implementing a digital detox, however. Don’t just hide all the gadgets or disconnect the Wi-Fi and expect everyone to deal with it. The trick is to wean everybody off slowly so that they can see how enjoyable a tech-free day can be.
Let these steps guide you in implementing a digital detox at home – with minimal fuss:
Explain your reasons for wanting a tech fast: If you want to pull this off successfully, you’ll need everyone’s cooperation and understanding. So explain your intentions and expectations to your spouse and kids. Tell them why it’s important for the family to go tech-free for a day or two and what you hope to achieve after the detox is over (for example, closer relationships with one another, having new or different bonding experiences, and so on). Plan when the detox will happen and give your family ample time to emotionally prepare for it.
Set some rules: Decide how you want to go about this. A completely digital-free weekend may not be possible, so Dr Lim suggests implementing digital-free hours during the day and making certain areas of the house digital-free instead. Try this over a long weekend and see how it goes.
“For example, you may wish to ban digital devices during mealtimes and one hour prior to bedtime, and make it clear that no digital devices are to be used in the bedrooms and dining room,” says Dr Lim.
“Initially, you may have to disconnect the Wi-FI and put all the gadgets aside, but once your kids get used to it and become more disciplined, simply switching off the devices will do.”
Replace tech time with other forms of family bonding: You don’t want your kids to feel bored or be idle, so plan some activities for them to do. It’s also important to spend time together as a family, says Daniel. Take the kids out to the park, enjoy quality time with your husband, or play board games or charades instead of watching TV. Encourage your children to share their stories with you, and give them your full attention while they’re talking.
Be a good example for your kids: “This means sticking to your own rules when it comes to digital-free hours or digital-free zones, and not going back on your word about spending quality time together as a family,” Daniel adds.