Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, author of 'The Big Disconnect'

Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, author of ‘The Big Disconnect’

I wish I could quote The New York Times writer Dwight Garner’s entire review of Catherine Steiner-Adair’s new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age – it’s that good (and anything that can help sell print books these days is worth quoting in its entirety.) I’ll simply suggest you read the review for yourself.

If you like what you read, you’ll want to go to the Brookline Booksmith this Wednesday, October 2nd at 7PM, when clinical psychologist and Harvard Medical School instructor Catherine Steiner-Adair will be discussing and signing her new book. I spoke with Dr. Steiner-Adair, who lives in Newton, and we had a lively (and often cautionary) discussion of how being “linked in” has many of us feeling left out, particularly in our own families.

Brookline Hub: What inspired you to write ‘The Big Disconnect’? How did you research it?

Catherine Steiner-Adair: I had three major motivations: First, I’m a parent of a 28 year-old son who rode the wave of technology. He loves writing code and working on computers. I had a love/hate relationship with this—I hated it when I tried to get him to come down for dinner!

Second, I’m a school consultant and about 15 years ago I started getting calls from school principles saying, “I need your advice, I have this good kid here, he comes from a nice family, and he’s in a really big mess.” We’re talking about real trouble: serious lawsuits, privacy issues. These kids are in over their heads.

Also I’m a therapist and I recognize the wonderful ways that technology has allowed us to connect with other family members all over the world, but people need to learn to communicate with care. Texting has a way of amplifying human drama. Let’s say you have two people who are divorcing and they’re texting each other. In several hundred rapid-fire texts they’re typing the meanest, cruelest things, hitting “send,” and not seeing the impact their words have on the recipient. There is a Dopamine high that we get from technology that is so powerful, but it’s bringing out the worst in us. When you take tone of voice out of conversations, you’re taking out what is uniquely human about our communication.

BH: Technology and other modern advances have been disrupting family life for generations. Why is it any different today than, say, in the golden age of television? Are we blaming the medium just because it’s handy?

CSA: It’s drastically different. Kids didn’t used to take their TVs with them when they left the house. Parents could control what their kids watched on television. They knew whom their kids were talking to. The parents were the ones answering the phone or they could pick up the other telephone line and listen in. Now kids can access anyone in the world. We’ve lost the boundaries that used to protect families. Kids can easily end up in a very adult world. It’s really tricky, too, because schools are giving iPads to kids and they have a range of filters on them. Kids can be using Google for homework and end up on a porn site.

BH: One particularly insidious aspect of kids spending so much time online is cyber-bullying. During the writing of this book did you discover any strategies for preventing this dangerous trend?

CSA: The suicide of a 12 year-old girl isn’t really suicide. 12 year-old girls rarely take their own life. It’s self-generated penacide. More and more children are devastated by social cruelty. Being online allows you to avoid seeing someone’s reaction. People say things online they would never say in person, and the cruelty is permanent. You can take a screenshot of it. The sense of exposure and vulnerability for the victim is so much greater.

If you see your child is bullying someone or being bullied you should talk to them right away. Figure out if the school needs to know, talk to your child about how to apologize and how to do things differently next time. Don’t get too angry or scary. Kids are going to screw up. It’s human nature to say unkind things. Instead you ask, has anyone been snarky online today? Did you read any good jokes? Make it a part of your daily discussion.

It’s really important that parents have responsible user agreements with their kids. These agreements would include it’s not OK to be mean in a text, in an email, or online and your computer use is a privilege. It’s not your phone, it’s our phone, and here’s what it’s for. You need to be clear on family values. You need to tell your kids that you’ll be randomly checking up on them to see if they’re using the devices maturely. Take a look at their activity both with them and on your own.

BH: Adults can be as guilty of loving their devices as their kids are. What should parents be doing to set a good example for their children?

CSA: I interviewed 1,000 kids between the ages of 4-18 and 50-100 young adults ages 18-30 years old for this book. All of them expressed a sense of frustration, sadness, anger, and fatigue just trying to get their parents’ attention.

When you’re talking to your child and you stop to answer your cell phone, it’s like you’re saying, “Oops, honey, you’re not that interesting and the person on the phone matters more so I’m going to put you on hold.”

There are certain times of the day when you need to be unplugged. Dinnertime. When the kids wake up. If you need to check your computer, get up ½ hour earlier than everyone else. Don’t be sending emails when you’re getting your kids ready for school. Kids told me that they hate when their parents are on the phone when carpooling, especially when they’re arguing and kids are hearing one side of it. Kids feel more connected to you when you drive without a phone. When you pick them up at school, don’t be on the phone. When your child walks in the door, you better not be on that phone! At bedtime and story time, don’t bring your phone with you and set it on vibrate. Kids need to know you’re really there for them. Children want the primacy of family. Without that, technology becomes the default parent.

BH: In what ways does technology benefit families?

CSA: It can be wonderful. Cousins can talk and play with each other over Skype, you can text your kids in college or while they’re traveling. You can share funny stuff with your kids, YouTube videos, and new computer games. Your daughter can text you a photo and say, “Hey Mom, what do you think of these shoes with this dress?” I love hearing from my nieces and nephews and extended family and photosharing with them. In moderation technology is wonderful. But you have to remember it’s a photo you’re sharing and not the real experience.

BH: What has the reaction been to the book so far? How has your own life changed since you finished the book?

CSA: The response has been overwhelming. I’ve had requests for interviews from all over the world. People thank me for making the effort to write the book. It’s very gratifying. If a book helps us all push the “pause” button, then that’s what I’m hoping for.

~ Jennifer Campaniolo