x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Is technology fracturing our families?

Technology has narrowed distance. But its has also taken its toll on the UAE's once tight-knit social life.

I still remember those momentous days when my family would prepare food, grab the fishing gear and go for a sea trip.

I was 8 years old the first time I saw my father catching fish and pulling them gently off the hook. Upon catching even a small fish he would roar about it, and gather us four siblings around to admire his latest achievement.

It was great being surrounded by loved ones without any outside distraction. The smallest occasions united us in creating memories. I wish I could rewind to those priceless days. Sadly, it seems we're heading in the opposite direction.

My generation is growing up in an economy and environment different from those the last generation knew. Many parents had to sacrifice to ensure the protection and well-being of their children. Regardless of their struggles, they were all united.

"Our living was dependent on fishing," my father recalled one recent day. "We would set in the early morning to catch fish, and when we would catch a big one, an announcer would call out the news to the entire community, and the fish would be shared out. Life was easier and we used to have so much fun."

The UAE's economic standard has improved rapidly, and the government gives citizens all necessary support. Now, many of us think of our parents' and grandparents' lives as "difficult" or "simple" due to the absence of technology. But they often characterise their past as a time of "togetherness".

Technology has turned the entire country into one small village, where distance does not matter any more. But this has taken its toll on the country's once tight-knit social life.

There is a huge cultural, technological and economic gap between the life my parents led and the life their children are caught up in.

Today, nearly every room in our homes is equipped with a computer and a television, allowing each member of a family to pursue individual interests, all at the same time. The once-upon-a-time sharing of experience is no longer so common. While technology has made our lives easier, it has also fractured the foundation of family relationships.

Sociologist Suaad Zayed Al Oraimi of UAE University has been studying the "impact of technology on the family bond". She has found that due to the rapid change in people's way of life, most youngsters are spontaneously detaching themselves from their families. Emirati society is well known for being family-orientated, but this is slowly changing as family members, including children, and each increasingly preoccupied with their own gadgets.

Some families have discovered that providing young children with iPads or PlayStations is the easiest way to help them focus. But this is yet one further step in isolating children from their parents and families, and from the world outside.

Another aspect of this technological change is that the art of face-to-face communication is slowly fading away in many households. Because of time spent staring into screens, simple conversation between parents and children is diminished; this in turn makes it more difficult to understand the tone and emotion that come along with another person's words.

My parents have been complaining about how little time their children spend sitting and talking with them about daily events and issues. There was a time when everyone in a family had the same experiences in common; today we each go our own way, leaving less common ground for old-fashioned conversation.

I am saddened that even on typical weekend days, when my family is sitting together, right in the middle of the conversation the beeping of our cell phones can so easily divert our attention from each other.

Although we are a loving family, communicating meaningfully has become more difficult, due to what I consider excessive individualism. The daily sharing of news, opinions and moods is slowly fading in my family. And my family is not alone.

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once said that "everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself". The same thought occurs in the saying that it is easier to look out the window than to look in a mirror.

It is fruitless to blame technology for our own shortcomings. The best way to increase the togetherness of my family would be for me to change my lifestyle and be a paragon for my siblings to emulate.

And the first step is putting my phone away when I'm with my family.

 

AAlHameli@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Asmaa_AlHameli