In these times, we are surrounded by media devices, computers, cell phones, mp3 players, HD television sets, DVD players, and gaming systems. From the very young to the old, we tend to have our favorite electronic devices - from the little boy's handheld gaming device, to the busy adult's laptop computer, to the lonely widow's favorite TV. Are these electronic devices a miraculous blessing - or a consuming distraction from our most important relationships?

In many ways, these devices can serve and support our real-world connections

The busy mother texts her daughter at school to let her know she'll be a few minutes late. The loving grandparents enjoy Facetime or Skype with their bright-faced grandchildren, hundreds or thousands of miles away. The young couple settles into each other's arms to enjoy a romantic movie together, bringing up even more warm and tender feelings between them. The two brothers delight together in the adventures they share onscreen, in the rich and compelling imagery of their favorite fantasy game.

Media has become an ever-present part of our lives and relationships

Recorded music provides an increasingly personalized soundtrack for our everyday activities, through our radios or Pandora playlists. Those working and students at school spend their workdays typing on computers - then go home to relax to an onscreen movie, game, or browsing session. We may spend many - if not most - of the hours of every day focusing on images that pass before us on some bright electronic screen. Is that helping us - or harming us? Is that strengthening our relationships - or endangering them?

While these devices can bring endless enjoyment and enrichment, they also hold significant perils. We and our children are gaining more weight, becoming vulnerable to more health problems as we spend hours of sedentary time staring at a screen. Our eyesight can become impaired by focusing for long periods at the TV or computer screens. Perhaps most significantly, our most important relationships can become endangered by the lack of needed time and attentionas focus shifts for hours at a time to what's happening on the screen - rather than what's happening in the real world, between real people.

If we are wise, we can use the powers of these devices to strengthen our lives and our relationships, rather than weaken them. Here are some suggestions:

1. Time limits - Balance onscreen time with real-world time

We need to make sure that we and our children are enjoying plenty of time in the real world, with real people playing together, talking face to face and working together. Turn the TV off by a certain time. Set limits on how many minutes or hours of gaming time members of your family are allowed. Put your laptop in sleep mode every so often, and go check in with your spouse or child. Make sure media isn't consuming every minute of the day. Make time daily to focus eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart on the most important people in your life.

2. Develop hobbies and interests in the physical world and enjoy them together

Media is so instantly available and abundant it can make us lazy, both mentally and physically. It's so easy to check Facebook again, or click "Play" on yet another Netflix movie, or let the TV roll on to the next piece of programmed entertainment, or enter just one more level of your favorite video game. These media products are designed to capture and retain our focus. Make sure you are in charge of your life - not the producers of these products. Remember to get outside, get active, use your hands and your mind for something other than interacting with an electronic screen.

3. Be proactive and creative in your life and relationships

Do something physical and fun in the real world. As marvelous as the onscreen world is, it is still just an image, not a reality. Get out in nature, out where there are real people. Shovel your neighbor's walk. Ask your child about their day. Clean that neglected bathroom or garage. Most important, spend focused, meaningful time with your spouse or child without the distraction of media. Talk to each other, look into each other's eyes, share feelings. It may perhaps be the most important change you can make, to strengthen your most important relationships.

4. Every so often, do a media fast

Set a period of time to turn off the TV, the iPod, computer, radio, or any other media device. Remember how life can feel when it is given primary focus. Become reacquainted with your own private thoughts and write them down. Become reacquainted with your family members; play with them, talk, work with them, and laugh together. After a day or two without media, you will be better prepared to find that crucial balance between real life and onscreen life; enjoying the blessings of media, without letting it consume your life or your relationships.

With care, we can use the marvelous technologies of our time to enrich our loving relationships - rather than replace them or distract from them.

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