Every time you go out to a restaurant, it’s pretty much impossible to get out of there without seeing at least one table taken up by a family where none of them are talking to each other. Instead, their faces are directed downward at their respective smartphones or tablets, each of them there, but not really there.

A 2014 Boston Medical Center study confirmed this when they observed 55 families eating dinner together at a fast food restaurant. The parents in 40 of those 55 families were seen absorbed in their mobile devices, with one third of the parents spending the entire meal on their device of choice.1 Another study found that 90% of people reported that their relationships have been damaged as their significant others were ignoring them in favor of their gadgets.2 Yet another study announced that today’s college students spend between eight and ten hours using their cell phones in some capacity each day, with 60% admitting that they are addicted.3

More important and troublesome than any of those shocking finds, though, was a Virginia Tech study that concluded that even having a smartphone present—regardless of whether or not we look at it—greatly damages the quality of in-person interactions and gives us less ability to relate to the people with whom we converse.

Even without active use, the presence of mobile technologies has the potential to divert individuals from face-to-face exchanges, thereby undermining the character and depth of these connections. Individuals are more likely to miss subtle cues, facial expressions, and changes in the tone of their conversation partner’s voice, and have less eye contact.4

Obviously, that’s a problem. Our phones and tablets have created a disturbing subconscious reflex of escapism, causing our minds to wander from the conversations going on directly in front of our faces to some far off urgent event or interaction. By trying to be everywhere at once, we’re nowhere, and it’s damaging marriages and hurting parent-child relationships.

We need to find a solution, of course, but it’s generally not reasonable to expect people to get rid of their smart phones, and tablets altogether. Those are just part of our lives these days, just as much as the radio, television, and computer became accepted by previous generations, and they aren’t inherently bad. It’s our usage that has made them the problem that they are. Families have to start to break this trend if they are going to develop the closeness required for true relational discipleship.

How can we do it? Change has to start with you. It’s easy for parents (and grandparents, and really any adult) to complain about how much time today’s kids spend in front of their video games and cell phones, but they learn by observation. If you can’t put down the screen to give your wife the full attention she deserves, why should you expect your children to respond respectfully when she calls them in to do their chores? If you’re too absorbed in scrolling through a social media feed to listen to your husband, don’t expect your children to listen when he has something important to say to them. How can Deuteronomy 6:7 discipleship take place in a house where everybody is mentally somewhere else via the screens in their hands?

Boundaries must be set, but first you have to set the example in order to have any credibility when you set the boundaries. It may be difficult for you to break the habit, but if you’re choosing between the disfunction that is claiming countless families in our culture or a rock solid family relationship, putting your cell phone away is a rather small trade. Until boundaries (both personal and family-wide) are placed on technology, it will continue to keep families divided and hinder them from opening the Bible, praying, and having discussions together. These innovations have reached the point where you either control them or they control you. Here are three boundaries you can set to make sure you have control over your house.

No phones at the dinner table. A family eating dinner together is one of the greatest of all of life’s simple pleasures. The last generation or two put this tradition at risk by increasing busyness, with school and sports programs keeping everybody going different directions. This generation has compounded the problem by adding cell phones into the equation, so that on the rare occasion that the family is together, they are distracted. Nobody will ever have warm memories of staring into an iPhone, but almost everybody can fondly recall great times spent gathered around a meal with family. It’s in this setting that God’s natural prescription for training children—talking to them (again, Deuteronomy 6:7)—can occur most naturally. Set a rule for yourself and your children that nobody will be allowed to bring their cell phones to the dinner table while at home, or bring them out of their pockets while eating out.

No phones when someone is talking to you. Can you imagine how Jesus’ ministry would have changed if He met the woman at the well, or Nicodemus, or Zaccheus in a modern cultural setting? Conversation is important, as are its natural counterparts, eye contact and body language. Put all three together and you have one of the most basic yet most profound ways of showing other people that you care about them. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39), and none of us like being ignored or being made to feel like we’re wasting someone’s time. Whether you’re talking to the President of the United States or your 3-year-old, every human deserves the respect we can show by being in the moment with them rather than searching for some form of escape. That kind of caring is rare these days, and Christians should embrace this opportunity to be bright lights to people who so desperately need connection and love.

Have set times for leaving phones at home or turning them off. As the one study pointed out, the phone doesn’t even have to be in use to become a distraction. There’s the constant curiosity about what we might be missing, the constant pull to check one more time because something may have changed, or we might have a new notification to check. As soon as we turn the screen off, a timer starts ticking in our heads, counting down until the next urge. One of the best ways to break any habit is to cut ourselves off from it. For particularly important occasions such as weddings, funerals, nights out with your spouse, or (of course) Bible class and worship, shut it down. Sometimes I even leave it behind, which feels bizarre now but was standard operating procedure for every single human in earth’s history until 10-15 years ago. It’s in doing this that we condition our own minds as to what’s important. Once you get in the right place mentally, your actions follow, showing your spouse, a loved one, or even your Father in heaven that you’ve cleared your mind from the distractions and are ready to give them your undivided attention.

If you’re like me and you grew up in the first cell phone generation, you know that this is an uphill battle. But it’s a battle for true love and care in our relationships and interactions with other people, and that makes it a battle worth fighting. The next generation is starting off with an even greater battle, but if we start getting our priorities right and help them set the boundaries for their own tech use, we can really start to turn the tide on what it means to truly connect with people. It’s a dark world where a family enjoying each other’s company over a meal is a strange sight, but that just gives us another opportunity to be the salt and light we were made to be by loving one another.

By Jack Wilkie

Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact jack@focuspress.org.

1 “Parents on Smartphones Ignore Their Kids, Study Finds,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2014/03/10/parentson- smartphones-ignore-their-kids-study-finds/, 10 March 2014.

2 Abby Haglage, “What to Answer: Your Phone or Your Wife?” The Daily Beast, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/03/19/what-to-answer- your-phone-or-your-wife.html, 19 March 2014.

3 Janice Wood, “College Students In Study Spend 8 to 10 Hours Daily on Cell Phone,” Psych Central, http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/08/31/new-study-finds-cellphone- addiction-increasingly-realistic-possibility/74312.html.

4 Tom Jacobs, “Even Just the Presence of a Smartphone Lowers the Quality of In-Person Conversations,” Pacific Standard, http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/presence-smartphone- lowers-quality-person-conversations-85805, 14 July 2014.