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Adult Children: Put the Phone Away and Let’s Talk


As a college professor, I made a radical decision about a year ago: I banned smartphones and laptops during class. Honestly, I can’t compete with Facebook or an Internet flash sale or texts from friends. My students now take their notes the old-fashioned way with pen on paper. And it turns out that students who take notes by hand learn better.

Now I’d like to do the same with cellphones at home and social gatherings. The biggest generation gap is technology, especially with our millennial children whose phones are permanent appendages. I am not alone. Just the other night in a restaurant, a dad sitting next to me said to his 20-something daughter, “Let’s put away our cellphones for an hour.”

But it’s not only at meals. Friends have complained about picking up a son at the airport who then gets in the car and starts texting; shopping with a daughter who sends photos of merchandise to friends; and going to a museum with teen grandkids who spend most of the time posting to Instagram or taking selfies.

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In a critique last week of the negative consequences of constant cellphone use, MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who studies the psychology of online connectivity, wrote “Stop Googling, Let’s Talk.” In one of the more than 300 comments, a grandparent noted: “Last month I went with my son, grandchildren and their mother to Disneyland. She was on her ‘smart’ phone texting and sending photos the entire time and did not participate with her children, which was very sad because it was so important to the kids.”

There’s no doubt that, like computers in the classroom, smartphones are hard to compete with. A Pew study confirmed that there is indeed a generational divide: 98 percent of young adults used their cellphone during their most recent get-together with others, compared with 69 percent of cell owners 65 and older.

Don’t buy the excuse that our millennials can talk and text and whatever at the same time. “Multitaskers often think they are like gym rats, bulking up their ability to juggle tasks, when in fact they are like alcoholics, degrading their abilities through over-consumption,” wrote t echnology expert Clay Shirky, a colleague who inspired me to institute the classroom ban.

Rudeness alone is not the only reason to ask our adult children to put away the phone. For most of us, our face-to-face time with them is limited, whether it’s for a casual chat or a serious discussion. The context of what we say is not only in our words but in our tone of voice and facial expressions. Research proves that smartphone use lessens our ability to pick up on facial expressions and verbal cues. Perhaps even more important, it lowers the amount of empathy that is exchanged. Try having a serious conversation with the top of someone’s head!

Of course, parents are not alone in their objections. At the White House, Cabinet members drop their cellphones in a basket before a meeting. Even some millennials have reached a limit, so they play the phone stacking game when out at a restaurant: Everyone puts their phones in a stack, face down. The first person who caves and checks his or her phone pays the tab.

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As parents we sometimes fear starting a heated discussion over a touchy issue. But like the classroom experiment that has become standard practice, it might prove not all that objectionable to ask for no phones at meals and while chatting. A radical idea, but as in the classroom, they might actually get used to it.

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21, tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: Pagadesign/iStock

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