Minimizing Distractions to Maximize Quality Family Time

You’re driving along the road on autopilot, hardly paying attention, and then a nearly perceptible swerve. HONK! HONK! Your neck jerks. Your eyes snap to alert. And your hands grip the wheel. Another driver had laid into their horn, bringing you back to reality.

Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the passenger seat, the scene is scary. But it’s all too familiar.

Learning to drive involves a slew of safety tips, routines, and considerations. But perhaps the most impactful tidbit is limiting or avoiding all distractions.

And what’s true on the road is also true at home. Just like fiddling with controls and music in the car can jeopardize safety, distractions during quality family time can be just as costly at home. Instead of connecting meaningfully, you might crash and burn.

Spending quality time to connect with family and loved ones is enjoyable. But the new norm of constant interaction with technological devices puts those personal connections at risk. When you don’t make intentional choices to take breaks from your screens, your familial (and other) relationships can suffer.

So, before discussing technology’s role in the crash, let’s take a closer look at family relationships and the quality time required to maintain them. 

Quality Family Time: Curating Connections with Your Clan

When each person is fully present and offers their undivided attention to others, that’s quality family time. Going back to the driving analogy, quality family time is what ensures a smooth, safe, and enjoyable ride.

But it might be hard to achieve with the blur of busy schedules and technology. Tackling the dual threat of busyness and distraction is tough. So, first let’s focus on the variable of time.

You probably have family or close friends with whom you want to become or stay close. Conflicting schedules and shrinking free time are challenges embedded in that endeavor. Parents and partners might have busy, full-time work schedules. And if you have kids, they’re likely busy with school, extracurricular activities, friends, and hobbies. It can be difficult to find where you and your loved ones’ schedules align.

The good news? Despite jam-packed days, you can maximize the free time you do have.

Some researchers argue it’s not quantity of time with friends and family that matters. Quality is the goal. This means it’s more impactful to spend a focused hour with a loved one rather than several hours without fully engaging.

Consider reading and discussing a book with a family member, only for an hour. While it may seem short, it’s efficient. Like a bullet train, this approach is a smooth, enjoyable ride with no traffic jams, stoplights, or distractions.

Such an activity carries more weight than the alternative: sitting next to one another, in silence, watching movies. In this instance, the activity is longer, but the connection is lacking. Instead of a short, smooth ride, it’s more like a long road trip down a bumpy road. You’re there with someone you love, but the ride can wear on all the passengers.

The destination in both cases is the same: time spent with family. But the route to get there can look different. Route planning is worth it, and your connections will deepen because of your effort.

Tips for Creating More Quality Family Time

You’re ready to hop on the quality-time train, but don’t know where to start. The thing is: there’s no right way to do it. You can get creative. Quality family time doesn’t have to be serious or complex. Simple activities and just catching up can do the trick.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • When conversing, pay attention by being an active listener. Active listening isn’t just about hearing. It also involves eye contact, body language, and reflection. Eye contact lets the speaker know you’re present. Body language can show you’re intentional and a willing participant. This could be as simple as leaning in, squaring your hips toward the speaker, or keeping your arms relaxed rather than crossed. Lastly, use reflection in your responses. Reflection can be a simple paraphrase of what you’ve heard the speaker say. This lets them know you’ve heard and understood, what they’ve said. It can deepen the connection and invite further conversation.
  • Build a playlist together and have a listening party. This is an especially fun idea if you do it with someone who’s much older or younger than you. Crossing over into the culture of another generation can be fun and help you better understand one another.
  • Establish your own family traditions. You can set aside time each week or month to dedicate to a family activity you do consistently. This could be board games, cooking competition nights, days at the museum, or other family outings like bike rides or hikes.
  • Work as a team. Assign every family member a chore (parents included!) so everyone lends a helping hand. Holding everyone accountable to their tasks will help build a sense of responsibility and pride.
  • Schedule alone time with each child or family member. That’s because conversations flow more easily with fewer competing voices in the room. Also, put phones and devices away to make room for deeper conversations. Taking interest in what your child says builds trust and shows you’re invested in their well-being. This trust builds the likeliness they will turn to you when times get tough and they need support.

Technology’s Impact on Quality Family Time

Now let’s focus on the distractions—those things that pull your eyes and attention away from the road, endangering everyone in the car with you. Or with family, these distractors steal your presence and pull your attention away from your loved ones, possibly harming relationships.

Most of today’s distractions involve technology: phones, laptops, TVs, etc. The technology is useful and entertaining, but these devices can have major downsides.

Screen time steals your attention, taking you out of the conversation or activity at hand. Let’s say you only pull out your phone to check it quickly, but do so repeatedly. For those few moments, you miss major aspects of active listening mentioned above: eye contact and body language.

It’s also important to understand how constant technology use can affect the user. There’s plenty of research on the topic.

One study examined a large, random sample of data (over 40,000 respondents) representing how young children and adolescents (ages 2-17) interact with screens. They also looked at the resulting effects of technology on the respondents’ psychological well-being. Screens included cell phones, computers, gaming systems, and others.

Researchers found one hour of use per day was not problematic. In fact, an hour a day seemed to be a “sweet spot.” Those who used screens for about an hour each day experienced the same measure of well-being as those who didn’t use screens. In other words, minimal use barely constitutes a major distraction. Instead, light screen usage can be likened to the necessary adjustments needed to make a car ride more enjoyable—a quick adjustment of the AC or the radio volume.

The drop-off in psychological well-being only occurred after the one-hour mark was passed. With more than an hour of use per day, respondents reported feeling less curious, more distracted, and less emotionally stable. They also reported having a hard time making new friends.

In those 14-17 years old, specifically, heavy screen users (seven-plus hours per day vs. one hour per day) were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety in the previous year. Back in the car, this type of prolonged distraction would result in a white-knuckle ride or even a car wreck.

Now consider these adolescents in the context of their families. If the teens are battling technology-induced anxiety and depression, their ability to fully show up and be present for quality family time is impaired, too. And if their family members are also turning to their screens, the support system the teens need isn’t accessible when they need it most.

Adults’ usage should also be put under the microscope. As journalist Erika Christakis puts it, “More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.” Over the years, parents have increased the amount of time they spend with their kids. However, as you learned before, that time is not necessarily quality time.

Linda Stone is a researcher who coined the term “continuous partial attention” (or CPA). It’s an appropriate descriptor of technology’s effect on the attention of both parents and children. Stone says operating in this way allows individuals to always be “on”—always available and accessible.

While this can be good in some circumstances (being alert and aware), it can also be detrimental. If you’re always “on,” you can experience high amounts of stress and anxiety. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated. And being in that state can make it difficult to connect meaningfully with your family and loved ones.

So, what can undo the harmful effects of unlimited screen time? David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work,” suggests taking a break from technology—completely disconnecting. He argues that going offline can help improve your concentration. One study found that constantly checking devices (to monitor emails, social media feeds, and text messages) is associated with elevated stress levels. Taking a break from your devices and disconnecting may help lower your stress levels. And when you’re less stressed, you’re more likely to pursue and enjoy quality family time.

Finding Family and Overall Well-Being

So why does all of this matter? Research shows familial relationships are extremely influential to an individual family member’s well-being across their lifespan. This goes in both directions. If the family environment is toxic, family members’ well-being is negatively impacted. Conversely, if the family ties are strong and supportive, then each person will experience a boost in their well-being.

This is largely because family is key to social health and provides resources for each of its members. Family or close friends act as a wellness hub. They can offer emotional support, lend physical assistance if needed, or provide referrals to other caregivers. It may also come in the form of support through life’s stressors or encouragement to engage in healthier behaviors. Not having access to a family network can minimize the number of resources available to you.

Imagine the driving metaphor again. You’re back in the car and you want to make it to your destination safely. The best way to do this is to buckle up and limit distractions. You can equate positive family relationships to the safety belt: it can ensure you maintain your health (social, emotional, and physical). And limiting distractions—screen time and other technology—allows you to focus on the road ahead: pursuing quality family time to sustain each of your family members day-to-day.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.