Screen Shot 2015-10-22 at 12.29.36 PM

The Brood: Are our phones getting in the way of family time?

Interview with NPR

Our phones and electronic devices help us take care of all sorts of everyday tasks, but they can also cause some trouble.

Doing something “worthwhile” like reading a book or sending an important email to your child’s teacher on an iPhone can, to an outside observer, look like you’re doing something like watching a cat video or scrolling through Twitter.

It’s a problem that writer Susan Dominus explored recently in a piece for the New York Times Magazine, called “Motherhood, Screened Off.”

“I think that what happens when parents are on the phone (or anybody’s on the phone around other people) is that not only are you checked out, you’re not giving them your attention, but you’re also operating in secrecy, not intentionally, but nobody ever knows what you’re doing,” Dominus says. “And there are many things that are complicated about that.”

It can mean that a child won’t see good examples of their parents reading a book or keeping up with the news, “but on top of that, I think for children, it’s very disempowering, and also it’s frustrating and a little bit threatening, because they feel you could be doing something trivial and ignoring them.”

One solution she’s found is narrating out loud to her kids what she’s doing on her phone, while she’s doing it. The other solution, of course, is making sure to just put the phone away during things like dinner time or game night.

But are parents today really any more distracted than parents were in generations past? Dominus says she doesn’t think so.

“I think our generation of parents are extremely involved in our children’s lives,” Dominus says. “I think what’s different [today] is that there’s a sense of loneliness. So that, when my mother was paying bills, all the checks were on the table, I could sit with her and chat with her and see what she was doing and be with her. But there’s just something so isolating about cellphone use.”

For parents who are having trouble putting down their cellphones and disconnecting, Annharriet Buck, a stress management specialist at the Golden Door Spa, has some suggestions:

  • Practice mindfulness: “Three times a day, deliberately bring yourself to a moment where you bring all of your senses to your environment and really see and smell and feel and hear where you are.”
  • Start a gratitude journal: “I love to have people write a gratitude list every night, and this a beautiful thing to do with children as well. Where you pick out three things that happened today that brought you great joy and great happiness, sort of like gathering a bouquet of beautiful moments during the day that you then write down by hand — not on a device!”
  • Make a “digital detox box”: “It’s the place where the devices go during important family time, during meals, and at bedtime. And so you sit down with the kids and design this box and decorate it and then everybody knows what it’s for.”


The Belly Breathing Secret

For years yoga masters have told us that belly breathing is essential, that it is the all-clear signal to the body. Have you ever wondered why? Mark Abramson, head of the Stanford University Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, taught me the secret behind belly breathing. It may surprise you; when you listen to someone speak:

  • 75% of what your brain receives comes from body language
  • 17% comes from tone of voice and rhythm
  • 7% comes from the words you hear

We could have a whole discussion on why lecturers would benefit from song and dance training, but that is for another time.
The importance of the above statistics for belly breathing is this:
Inside your body, similar communication is going on. Inner-body language (including the breath) tells your nervous system if it should fight and flee, or rest and digest.

What did you do the first moment we heard about the events of 9/11? You probably gasped.

It turns out that short breaths, high in the chest, engage the anxious, sympathetic nervous system, which in turn triggers the release of adrenalin and other stress hormones that tell your body to fight or flee (or freeze).

Deep belly breathing, on the other hand, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which inhibits the release of stress hormones and produces a relaxed rest-and-digest response.

You have probably practiced belly breathing sometime in your life. Belly breathing has you expand your belly as you inhale a deep-down breath.

Try this:
Close your eyes and picture a beautiful scene, high on a hill, overlooking the ocean. See the sun glistening on the waves and smell the fresh, salty sea air.

Now breathe high in your chest with short, shallow breaths. Take several short breaths. Notice how that feels.

Then, while you continue to take in the beautiful view, shift to deep belly breathing. Feel your breath slowly go deep and low while your belly expands. Take several belly breaths and notice how that feels.

Now open your eyes.

If you are like most people, you found it difficult to take short, shallow breaths while enjoying a beautiful scene. It just doesn’t fit.
Deep belly breathing is much more compatible with enjoying a beautiful scene.

Make it a practice every 30 minutes or so throughout the day to pause and take a few deep belly breaths. Get comfortable with the feeling of deeper breathing.

Then, the next time you are anxious or worried, consciously shift to deep belly breathing. Your parasympathetic nervous system will produce a calming, rest-and-digest response. This can reverse the harmful effects of stress in your body and that will help relieve your anxiety.