11/19/2013 06:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

6 Homemade 'Apps' for Parents in the Digital Age

Do your kids spend more time Photoshopping your pet than actually petting it? Do you have to remind them to maintain eye contact when visiting grandparents? Are they lost in their phones as we "speak"?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to read Catherine Steiner-Adair's The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. The book is full of food for thought and cautionary tales, but the opening chapters surprise by focusing not on the familiar litany of children's technological misbehavior but on "the ways in which parents are checking out of family time, disappearing themselves and offering that behavior as a model for their children."

One middle schooler interviewed by Steiner-Adair was fed up with her parents' constant phone-checking during family time: "What I wish my parents understood about technology is that technology isn't the whole world. It's sort of a new thing for them because they're sort of really old. . ."

Ouch. As the father of two daughters (one teen and one tween), that hit close to home. So with Steiner-Adair's book in mind, I thought I'd present six old-fashioned, homemade "apps" that have helped our family negotiate the role of technology at home. Disclaimer: each family is unique and has to find its own road to technological health, but the following might help.

1) Appreciate that today's kids didn't ask to be born into a you-are-what-you-tweet world, a Facebook over face-in-book world, a world where clothing stores continue to replace book stores in a rapacious body-over-mind death spiral. (Sorry. Note to self: save ex-English professor rants for a different post.)

Steiner-Adair's research reminds us that children today still need and crave unplugged family time, whether they express it or not. Parents just have to be more proactive in achieving it via things like tech-free times/spaces at home, nature adventures, and family vacations. (My wife and daughters have mentioned something called "glamping," but I refuse to Google that term.)

2) Apply common sense to your home environment. This might be defined differently by various families, but Steiner-Adair rightly emphasizes the "shared rituals or conversations you create with your child around meals, bath and bedtime, playground, and drive times together -- all these are zones of interaction" and "transition."

Allowing the environment of these interactions to be dominated by screens (either theirs or yours) decreases the chances of healthy family connections. Steiner-Adair adds that in these no-tech moments we serve as "conversation mentors" for our children, which helps them build invaluable social and intimacy skills. Such moments away from any "digital boss" also provide children with space for "conversation within themselves -- the capacity for reflection -- that enables them to sit alone, think about things, and come to insights" that develop a sense of self.


3) Approve all your children's games, apps, and television shows. Let's face it, all parents (and kids) are now unofficially enrolled in continuing education classes when it comes to technology. Embrace the lifelong learner badge, because Steiner-Adair's book is full of sobering stories about clueless parents and risk-taking kids. Trust me, the chapters on sex and porn punctuate this point.

Granted, it may be impossible to monitor children's every online activity, but don't leave children to their own devices -- literally. In other words, don't wait for that large bill for your child's unwitting "in-app purchases" to kickstart your engagement in their tech habits (not that I have any experience with this scenario).

4) Applaud your children's positive uses of technology. When my daughters became more technologically involved, I lamented the sibling and pet neglect that followed. At one point, my younger daughter actually said she "missed" her older sister, even though her older sister was silently texting in the room with us! I realized that the "down time" my siblings and I used to fill with boredom-busters like paper football was now being filled with family-busters like endless "tech time" with friends.

So imagine my delight as my daughters discovered some "apps" we have enjoyed as a family -- e.g. playing Family Feud and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader? I admit it's ridiculous to play Uno on an iPad -- talk about reinventing the wheel, and at great cost. But I also have to admit it's family fun. In fact, a recent trip to Grandpa's house featured many female cousins bonding over the making of a movie trailer on iMovie. Yes, I wish all those girls hadn't made their only male cousin play a murderer in a wig with ketchup-for-blood on his hands, but again I have to admit it was family fun!

5) Appoint yourself to a leadership position when necessary. If kids can't regulate their tech time, don't be afraid to impose more accountability. Our own parents would never have let us stay on a landline phone call all day, every day, so why would we allow the texting equivalent for our children?

Steiner-Adair argues that "whether you envision yourself as a parenting rebel or a sustainable family activist, you want your family culture to be a counterculture to negative aspects of the dominant media and online culture." Sadly, today's families may have to be "countercultural" to maintain their technological health.

6) Appraise (and re-appraise) your family's technological health frequently. Much like "the sex talk," the "tech talk" needs to be ongoing. Technology changes in a snap(chat), so what works for your family today may not work tomorrow. If not, seek help, do research, ask friends, and regroup. The goal is a healthy balance.

Late in the book, Steiner-Adair channels Aristotle (and Goldilocks) when she states: "Purists can be blind to the wisdom of a middle path." The challenge for parents is to find the wisest middle path for your particular family through the ever-changing technological wilderness. Whatever you do, don't let your children mistake a virtual, seedless "selfie" for an actual, blossoming "self" rooted deep in a loving family.