04/30/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Our Children or Our Smartphones?

I frequent diners. I love them. Not just because you can get anything you want to eat, but also because they are fantastic places to observe humanity. I "diner" at least a few times a week, just to listen in on conversations. The diner is a prime laboratory for studying people and society. I have seen every kind of crazy behavior there, and every kind of kindness, too.

This week I witnessed two diner scenes that made me think about the place of technology in family, its dangers and benefits. The first scene was a father and daughter (about 13), on a lunch date. While they were technically having a meal together, the father spent the entire time on his smartphone, making phone calls and playing games. The little girl, who was technology-free, appeared sullen, her eyes empty with a tinge of anger. In between game rounds and conversations, when the father did address his daughter, the little girl made no eye contact and barely responded. The scene broke my heart.

It is not just us parents who have lost our children to technology -- our children have lost their parents. I wonder, are we raising a generation of orphans, children whose caretakers have disappeared into their shiny black boxes?

Love is attention. Children feel loved when we spend time with them -- gift them with our presence. We need to start paying attention to the messages that we are sending our children when we perpetually stare into our screens and not into their eyes. Of course we cannot converse with our children every moment, and children need down time just to space out (as do we adults). Nonetheless, when we spend our time continually interacting with technology in the company of our children, we are saying some very destructive things.

First, we are saying, "I am more interested in what's going on in this game than I am with you." Second, we are saying that playing games, texting and all the rest of it is a valuable way to spend our short time on this planet. Third (and most dangerous), when we choose our devices over our children (which is how a young mind understands mommy or daddy always on technology) we are saying that you, my child, are not important. You are not worthy of my attention. This is a message from which there is no turning back; we will never again have a relationship with our child that is free from this hurt -- never again be given a fresh slate from which to build their self esteem.

These orphans of technology will more than likely end up playing their own games later, not only because they have been taught that this is a rewarding way to spend their time, but because they don't trust that anyone would want to pay attention to them in that same way.

In another scene at the diner, it was a family of four -- two teenagers, a boy and a girl, and their parents. The brother and sister were actually talking with each other for the first part of the meal, a sight that struck me as refreshingly odd these days. Each of the family members had a device displayed on the table, not too far from reach (just in case), but they were all unattended.

The parents were not nice to each other. It was clear that at that moment, neither was fond of the other. Close enough to hear every under-the-breath muttering, I was privy to the full range of sedimentized rage that had built up between the two. Every so often the mother or father would throw a question out to one of the children, but mostly as a means for deliberately ignoring their spouse, the question to the child not a curiosity but rather a form of passive aggression toward the partner. The children were obviously hip to this emotional tactic, being used as objects to express their parents' anger, and wisely, rarely responded.

Then suddenly a topic came up that brought the parents' anger to a head. Unkind words were exchanged and nasty arguing ensued. Immediately, as if on cue, both children picked up their smartphones and started playing. They spent the second half of the meal staring into their screens, no longer speaking to each other or their parents. All I could think was, wow, children are smart. They know where they want to be and where they don't. Clearly it was not safe to express through language what they were feeling, if they were even old enough to be conscious of it, but they knew where they did not want to be, and what they did not want to experience.

I watched as the smartphone became an adaptive device, a mode of protection from the pain of family. I witnessed these wise children use their technology to remove themselves from the family dysfunction and take control in a situation in which they probably felt helpless. My heart broke for the wisdom of youth.

Like everything, humans included, technology resolves itself in contradiction. And yet, we must be mindful of what we are doing with technology, particularly when in the company of our children. Our emotional presence is the greatest gift we can offer our children. When we are staring into a device, we are not there, not present, and not loving. Children are too young to realize that it is us, the parents, who are at fault, and instead interpret this experience as their own failing. What they understand is that they are not worthy of our love, not important enough for us to want to pay attention to them. And indeed, this is what we are teaching our children -- that we would rather connect with our smartphone than connect with them.

As parents, we are awarded a profound power: the power to teach our children that they are loved, and that they are valuable and important as human beings. This is our task as parents. BEING there and paying them attention -- even in the silence -- is how this task gets accomplished. Let us be mindful and respectful, therefore, of how we employ our own presence, for presence is no other than love, and without it there is no love.

For more by Nancy Colier, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.