“How to Manage Digital Devices and Get Your Family Back,” Ensign, February 2020
Picture the following scenarios:
A family sits at a restaurant, waiting for their food, but rather than talk to each other, everyone stares at their smartphones.
A teenager feels inadequate and alone as she scrolls through the carefully curated performances of her peers on social media.
A little girl at the park tries to get her father to look up from his phone and pay attention to her.
A husband keeps checking sports alerts on his smartwatch while his wife is talking to him.
A young man is constantly texting throughout the home evening lesson.
Each of these examples—and dozens of others you have no doubt experienced—are little tragedies. Smartphones and other digital devices are both a blessing and a curse. They connect us to an amazing world of information. They help us to do family history, study scriptures, and speak with family across vast distances. But when not managed properly, digital devices can also disrupt family relationships and impact our mental, spiritual, and physical health.
In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, I witness the ever-growing challenge of earnest people competing with screens for the attention of their loved ones. It’s a great irony. The very devices that were supposed to help connect us to each other and improve our relationships have, in some cases, made relationships shallower and left people feeling insecure. In fact, many researchers are discovering that rising reports of depression, anxiety, bullying, and suicide have a connection with the epidemic of loneliness, brought on, in large part, by the widespread use of personal electronic devices.1
In our homes, even though everyone may be physically together, when devices are out, they can instantly create feelings of loneliness and disconnection. If we are to create oneness and connection in our family relationships, we must recognize the splitting of attention that happens when devices infiltrate our family gatherings.
We don’t need to overreact and completely eliminate technology from our lives. Instead, we need to put technology in its proper place so that it serves our relationships instead of eroding them.
Immersing ourselves in our devices minimizes the physical world around us—with all of its sounds, textures, visuals, and countless other sensations—and trades these for a virtual world that doesn’t connect us as deeply to our bodies and our environment. As a result, we may miss important physical signals that tell us what we need in order to be healthy. For example, excessive screen time can prevent us from noticing that we’re tired, hungry, or stressed.
Such disconnection from the physical world can also undermine our sense of joy. There is a significant difference, for example, between receiving a laughing emoji on a screen and personally experiencing the joyful laugh of a loved one.
Digital devices are engineered to be irresistible and hard to put down. In fact, many software and phone developers intentionally target our human vulnerabilities to keep us checking and scrolling through endless feeds of information.2
This dependency on devices is so common that it’s easy to ignore how it’s affecting us. Young people, therefore, need adults who can model the appropriate use of these devices and can educate children about their effects.
As President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught, digital devices “need to be our servants, not our masters.”3
With that in mind, here are seven tips for how to manage our digital devices:
The Savior showed us what it looks like to truly be with others without distraction. Throughout His ministry, He always focused on the individual: the woman with an issue of blood, the blind, the leper—Christ gave his full attention to them all. When He showed the Nephites His wounds, He didn’t rush the process. Rather, the people went “forth one by one until they had all gone forth” (3 Nephi 11:15; emphasis added).
As we model this practice, we teach our children how to truly be in one place at a time instead of splitting their attention between devices and those around them. When you’re talking with someone, especially a child or spouse, give them your full attention by putting your phone away.
Sadly, it’s become the norm to turn away from those we love to answer a text and attend to someone else’s need. This can have a negative effect on our relationships and may send an unintentional message that the person in front of us is less important.
Make a commitment to those in front of you that they have priority over interruptions from your smartphone or device. Look them in the eye. Listen as the Savior would. Focus.
When sharing heartfelt feelings or important thoughts with others, get as close to an in-person experience as your situation allows. If face-to-face communication isn’t possible, then try a video call so you can see and hear the person. If that’s not an option, then place a phone call so you can hear the person’s voice.
Delay ownership of smartphones and participation in social media until children and teens have developed adequate in-person social skills, such as listening, making eye contact, showing empathy, and being aware of others. Before children enter the world of digital citizenship, it’s important for them to practice good citizenship by respecting and relating to others.
One of the reasons why the average age of pornography exposure is 11 years old4 (and in many cases younger) is that many children are given smartphones at a young age. Keep this in mind also: even if your children are mature enough for social media accounts, many other people online who will have access to your child’s social accounts are not.5
Create clear boundaries in your home for when smartphones and devices will be used and then put away.
One strong recommendation: invite everyone in the family to be deliberate about taking breaks from their devices on a regular basis. Perhaps you can designate a place to put them, somewhere out of reach where they can’t be accessed easily—a basket in the kitchen, for example.
One family decided that devices needed to be plugged in and set aside during and after the evening meal so that family members could focus on spending uninterrupted time together.
When we intentionally set limits on our devices, our family members will begin to feel more connected.
It’s easy to mindlessly turn to our devices for relaxation, distraction, and fun. Resist the urge. Instead, put down your device, go outside, and engage your senses.
In June 2018, President Russell M. Nelson said to the youth of the Church, “My first invitation to you today is to disengage from a constant reliance on social media by holding a seven-day fast from social media.”6
As parents, you can make the same invitation in your home, holding occasional fasts from games, social media, or other digital distractions.
Consider whether you need to respond immediately to every message and alert. Our devices are training us to believe that every interruption is urgent and critical, thus possibly diverting our attention from what matters most. Try slowing down and delaying your response to messages so you can be more present and aware of those around you. Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed that some in the Church “neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value.”7
Designate sacred spaces where devices are never allowed. For example, one family decided that when they’re driving around town, phones and devices aren’t allowed in the vehicle so that family members can visit with each other. These kinds of limits allow for sustained attention and connection, which can prevent loneliness in families.
Making our homes a haven from the world requires effort and vigilance, especially with so many digital distractions all around us. For the sake of our family relationships and health, every effort is worth it.