Against the vibrant sunset of a warm Hawaiian evening, the six-member McGraw family sits around the dinner table, engaged in discussion between bites of pizza. As the kids ask about the composition of volcanic rock, or the hour of the Pearl Harbor attack, iPhones are whipped out and additional information triggers further questions.
While Michele McGraw usually prohibits her children from using technology at the dinner table back at home in Chantilly, Va., this exception on vacation has enhanced their time together and is one she does not regret.
Technology presents more and more opportunities and challenges for millennial moms worldwide working to create meaningful family moments, new research conducted by Yahoo! and Starcom MediaVest Group found. While 52 percent of global moms said technology is a distraction to family time, 71 percent said their family engages with technology together daily. As technology reframes the way families interact, mothers face new challenges in embracing this advancement to create meaningful family time in a plugged-in world.
"Technology may change what we do when we are together as a family, but it is not changing the way we need quality family time together," McGraw said.
A narrowing gap
The survey, which involved research in France, Colombia, China, Argentina, India, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Russia and the United States, revealed that 84 percent of mothers globally said planning family activities is worthwhile as long as a special moment is involved. In planning these family activities, 69 percent say, they turn to search engines for inspiration.
The brain gap is narrowing as older people use technology more and more, Gary Small, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, wrote in the book he co-authored, "iBrian: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind." This can have positive and negative implications, according to Small.
As older adults are becoming more and more familiar with technology, the entire family can be living in its own virtual world. "The traditional family would get together and all watch TV together, but now everybody is on their own computer doing their own thing. It separates us."
Being plugged in, however, can allow family members to connect in ways they couldn't before, Small said. When he and his wife go away to other continents, they like to connect with their kids on Skype. "We can see them, so it has a more emotional content for me than email or texting."
For Small, technology is neither all bad nor all good, but contingent on the content and the context. "There are a lot of technologies that can help train our brains. We can take these programs and really improves our lives, rather than being slave to them."
Plugging in together
Back in Chantilly, Michele McGraw, mother of four, said she is teaching her family to use technology to enhance their lives, rather than detract from it.
"We have family game nights and instead of playing cards, we play dance games on our Wii," McGraw wrote on scrapsofmygeeklife.com. "When taking road trips, instead of belting out a John Denver tune on our cassette player in the car, we are enjoying a Disney comedy on our car DVD player."
McGraw encourages her children to use technology as a tool for creativity and discovery.
"When my children are curious, technology can be a powerful instrument," she said. "It makes almost anything possible."
Her kids love to create movies on the family video camera, create chairs and houses for their dolls based upon online pictures, and browse the Internet to learn how to sew.
For McGraw, technology presents more options. When the Mcgraw family went on vacation to Hawaii recently, each member of the family brought a camera, with the incentive to take as many pictures as they wanted. After the trip, they plan on compiling all of the photos into a video, together, to create for keepsakes and to put into their Christmas card.
"It's something we can do together and all enjoy," McGraw said.
Parents needn't worry about their kids developing skills in technology, said Jim Taylor, author of "Raising Generation Tech: Preparing Your Children for a Media-Fueled World." "They are digital natives. Kids will become technologically adept without being glued to their iPad 24/7."
To facilitate meaningful family time, McGraw does not allow phones, television or reading during dinner. Sometimes they sit down for a family movie night and decide that there will be no laptops. "You have to make an effort to not do that," McGraw said.
McGraw doesn't limit her children's texting. "I remember spending hours on the phone until 3 in the morning when I was a teen," McGraw said. "I equivalate their texting to that." At any moment, she will ask her kids to hand their phone to her and she will look over their texts.
McGraw makes sure her kids are aware of the dangers of giving out their information online. She also has installed a program that takes random snapshots of her children's electronics. When they cross dangerous boundaries, "I never take everything away from them," McGraw said. "I use those moments as a teaching opportunity. I try to arm them with the information to be safe."
The world has changed in terms of technology, but raising kids really hasn't, and all the same things are as relevant now as they were 50 years ago, Taylor said.
"How do you raise good kids? Teach them good values, make sure they're physically active, make sure they eat well, play with them, teach them life skills like hard work, the ability to focus, the ability to handle pressure, the ability to communicate effectively — that's what makes people successful and happy, contributing individuals."
For McGraw, technology can play a part in this.
"Technology is here to stay, so we are using it to bring our family closer together," she said. "My kids will not know a life without technology, so we are learning to embrace it. Quality family time is as important today as it was when I was a kid. We are just integrating more technology into our family time."
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at email@example.com or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.
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