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Sacred Space

Air Date: 05/10/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.   It used to be that parents would talk proudly about the "quality time" they spent with their families. It always sounded a bit apologetic to me, as in "I may not spend a lot of time with my kids but at least it's quality time"-whatever that meant. You don't hear the phrase much these days, though, and I've observed that whatever you call it-quality time or family time or hang time-being with our partners and children usually includes our personal technology.             I know something about this, by the way. I'm writing this commentary on a new laptop computer with all-new programming. It's sexy and fast and while I can't give a product endorsement, it's quite fruity-if you get my meaning. And I find myself messing around with it just to admire the way things look on the screen and sending unnecessary emails to people just because I can.             Experts are telling us that children and pre-adolescents are particularly susceptible to forming a dependence on their technology. In fact, some experts now claim that kids and teens are physically "addicted" to texting-they literally can't put down the phone or go five minutes without knowing what's going on with their friends. And the research suggests that kids aren't the only ones with a problem: parents love toys, too. One young woman told me recently that her mom checks Facebook at every red light, and at least one study has found a link between teen depression and parental use of technology. Several parents have asked me lately whether it's okay to have a "no texting" rule at the dinner table. (By the way, the answer to that question is an emphatic ‘yes'!)             I recently heard an interview with an MIT professor named Sherry Turkle. Turkle has made a decades-long study of how humans relate to their technology and her latest title is revealing: "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Our Technology and Less From Each Other." Here's a rather surprising example: the introduction of toys like Webkinz and Furbys and Tamagotchis have led to quantifiable differences in how young children determine what is and is not alive. It turns out that an electronic companion feels just as "alive" to a preschooler these days as a human being does-which I find rather scary.             In her writing and interviews, Turkle talks about something she calls "sacred space" and the need to create it for those we love. Sacred space is anytime when real human-to-human connection happens, and it's becoming increasingly scarce. One dad told me that he made his son a priority by coming to all his athletic events-and he was only slightly embarrassed when his son said quietly, "Yeah, but you're always on your phone." Is just being present the same as really paying attention? I don't think so-and neither, apparently, do children. Turkle suggests that parents tune in to moments when children need to connect with us. The dinner table is a perfect example; so is the first moment we see our children after school or work. If we can really connect-really be present with and attuned to--our children in those moments, the rest of our time together will go much more smoothly. Remember, misbehavior is often a child's way of trying to create a sense of belonging and significance. What might happen if we took time to nurture belonging right from the beginning of our time together? There's another aspect to our relationship, too. As Turkle put it, "If we don't teach our children how to be alone, they will only know how to be lonely." I have found some of my greatest insights and times of peace in solitude, watching water flow or the wind moving in the leaves over my head. No TV; no music; no texting-just silence and my own breathing. When was the last time you saw a child content to be alone, without someone or something to entertain her? What effect does constant stimulation and noise have on the brain's sensitive wiring? And what happens to human beings who have lost the gift of solitude? Technology is wonderful-it really is. But I worry about the way it increasingly replaces human contact. Is Facebooking someone the same as sitting down over a cup of coffee? Is a poke the same as a hug? Maybe I'm just old and curmudgeonly, but I don't think so. Try taking a single day and turning off the electronics in your family-yes, all of them. It might be the most valuable experiment you ever try. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.