New Book Helps Families Navigate Technology Use

Joe and Carrie Dilley are shown with their children Jack and Ashton at a book-signing event last summer.Joe Dilley is shown with the oar his father mounted on a plaque as a graduation gift. The plaque gives Dilley the chance to tell a story from his childhood at Lake Panorama when he learned about the importance of not giving up.

By Susan Thompson

When he was five, Joe Dilley began spending weekends at Lake Panorama with his parents, John and Jennifer, and his younger brother Jake. Now 30 years later, as a licensed clinical psychologist, he draws upon his childhood experiences to help others. “The time we spent at Lake Panorama really oriented me to the importance of people, nature, a greater purpose in life,” Dilley says. “We enjoyed tubing, swimming, fishing, hiking. There was a lot of downtime, a lot of time with my family. It was a slower pace, and I learned to appreciate family values.”

Now Dilley has written a book where he can share his thoughts on the importance of family time with a broad audience. As technology advances and digital devices infiltrate U.S. homes, parents and grandparents express concern about how much time their children or grandchildren spend on gaming devices or computer screens.

In The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug and Reconnect in the Digital Age, Dilley introduces a three-step process to help transition a young person away from overuse of technology, so they unplug from devices and reconnect with family. Dilley is the cofounder of Synergy Psychological, the private practice he started in 2009 with his wife, Carrie, who also is a psychologist. Their practice is located in Sierra Madre, just outside of Pasadena, California. The Dilleys, along with two associates, specialize in psychotherapy and psychological assessment for children and young adults.

“We were seeing so many families day after day with the same concerns about how to get children to reduce their screen time,” he says. “I decided I could reach a lot more people if I put my recommendations into a condensed format.” Dilley says this book “wrote itself. It’s based on decades-old techniques for what to do when something owns us, rather than us owning it,” he says. “We’re talking about things such as substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, gambling. In this case, we’re talking about a young person who has an unhealthy relationship with a gaming device.”

Dilley remembers his first psychology professor talking about how rats are trained to press a bar to get food. “Go to a casino, and you see people doing the same thing as those rats,” his professor said. “Today’s game designers have figured out how to put the necessary bells and whistles into games and social media that keeps humans coming back for more,” Dilley observes.

“It’s not the kid’s fault, and it’s not the parents’ fault,” Dilley continues. “Humans are being controlled more and more by technology. And I’m not just talking about kids and their games. When you see someone at a restaurant taking photos of their food to share on social media, rather than talking to the person with them, it’s clear this phenomenon is about more people than just kids.”

Dilley acknowledges there are serious dangers with multi-player online games and unsupervised social media activity. “Kids are inviting into their bedrooms people they couldn’t invite to their birthday parties,” he says. “We see kids who have never used profanity, but they are exposed to swearing through these games, and they begin to swear.”

Often parents ask how much time their child should be allowed to play video games, but Dilley says the focus shouldn’t be on time. “You have to look at the kid and how is he or she doing in other ways. Can the child be trusted? Is the child home on time, safe, well-rested, social and getting good grades? Then playing for a while makes sense. Or is the child cutting class, earning failing grades, and being sassy? If so, the kid needs to take a break until the responsibility he demonstrates warrants the privilege he wants,” he says. There is another step, too. “If the kid starts to threaten self-harm, it’s time for professional help,” Dilley says.

Dilley’s book offers specific steps on how parents should help a child balance daily responsibilities to earn the privilege of screen time. But mostly, he says, it’s about giving parents “permission to be parents. If there is any problem, whether it’s too much screen time, or substance abuse, or an unhealthy dating relationship, you need to trust your gut. Parents need to constantly know what’s going on with their kids, and be ready to step in when it’s needed.”

Dilley tells the story of one young person who read his book in his waiting room, then handed it to a parent, saying his parent should read it because it was fair to kids and parents. “I’m not saying all screen time should be eliminated,” Dilley says. “If your child wants to come home from school and play video games as an outlet, that’s okay. It’s how our society works. Adults get paid to work, and still want to come home and find ways to unwind. It’s just important to find a balance between work and reward.”

It’s also important for parents to keep in mind it’s not just what they say, but what they do, that has an impact. “Kids are often watching us, rather than listening,” he says. “So if you’re texting while you’re driving, and telling them not to text and drive, they probably aren’t going to listen.”

While Joe and Jake were growing up, the family spent weekdays at their home in Clive. Asked if he always wanted to be a psychologist, Joe’s response is quick. “No, I wanted to play in the NFL,” he says. Dilley played center for West Des Moines Valley High School, where he was second team all-conference. But he realized he wasn’t big enough to play college or pro football.

John Dilley, a clinical psychologist, and Jennifer, a former special education teacher and then manager for John’s practice, often talked about their day over dinner. “I thought what they did sounded great,” Joe said. He attended the University of Iowa, where he graduated with honors in psychology and a double minor in religion and philosophy. He then attended Northwestern Medical School in downtown Chicago where he completed his doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in strengths-based therapy for children, teens and adults. He met Carrie, his future wife, because their fathers were friends in graduate school.

Looking back on his days at Lake Panorama, Dilley has a story about learning persistence in life. His aunt had purchased one of the original Sunset Terrace condos on the main basin in 1983. The next summer, Joe’s family rented the condo for a few weekends.

Jennifer picks up the story. “As avid snow skiers, John and I kept looking over at the pine trees on Christmas Tree Point, trying to figure what that area was about and how to get to it. When we finally drove over, there was a 'for sale' sign on the lot where we now live. It was an overgrown acre of 200 trees. We were hooked by the sound of the wind coming through the pines, and eventually purchased it,” she says.

During the lot purchase process, John and Joe decided to take the family’s new two-man rubber raft from the condo to their new lot. Joe was five years old. “Though it looked like rain and was windy with the current against them, off they went,” Jennifer says. “Because of Joe's age, he sat low in the raft and could barely reach the water with the short plastic oar, so paddling was cumbersome and difficult...but paddle he did!”

Before they got to the halfway point, John asked Joe if he would like to head back, letting the current carry them. Joe wouldn't hear of giving up. Three-and-a-half hours later, they arrived at Christmas Tree Point where Jennifer and Jake had driven to pick them up. “They were so tired, but Joe was so proud. It was one of his first major accomplishments in life,” she says.

Over the years, one of the oars was lost and the boat was discarded. But John kept the second oar. Twenty years later, when Joe graduated from Northwestern, John surprised him with a walnut plaque on which the little oar was mounted. On the plaque is a small engraved silver plate that reads, "Always keep on paddling...Galatians 6:9." The plaque now hangs in Joe’s office, and he has used it as a teaching tool with patients.

John and Jennifer sold their Clive home two years ago, and now are full-time Lake Panorama residents. Their younger son Jake earned a masters degree in film last May. He and his girlfriend Claire moved to North Hollywood, and live about 20 miles from Joe and Carrie. Jake designed the cover for Joe’s new book. Joe and Carrie have two children. Their daughter Ashton is five years old. Their son Jack is eight months old. When John and Jennifer can break away from their practice in Clive, they travel to California to spend family time with their children and grandchildren.

MORE ABOUT THE BOOK

Dr. Joe Dilley, a licensed clinical psychologist who grew up at Lake Panorama, has written a book titled The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug and Reconnect in the Digital Age. The 248-page book is available in paperback and ebook. An audio book, with Dilley doing the reading, will be available in early 2016. Reviews of the book have been good. “This book should be mandatory reading for anyone raising a child in today’s high tech world,” said Stephanie Marcy, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at USC Keck School of Medicine.

Diane Danis, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, said “At last – guidance for parents trying to navigate parenting a child in the electronic age! The Game is Playing Your Kid provides a practical, family centered guide to helping young people create a balanced life that includes recreational electronics. Most importantly, it encourages a collaborative problem solving approach between parent and child when there is conflict around issues of electronics use.”

Justin Hartwig, a certified health coach and Iowa native who won the Super Bowl in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, said The Game is Playing Your Kid tackles one of the biggest problems facing parents in the technology age . . . screen time. Dr. Dilley brings awareness and healthy responses to many issues facing families, when electronic devices become idols in kids’ lives.”

The book is available in some independent and Barnes and Noble bookstores. More details about the book, plus online purchasing options, are available on Dilley’s website — dontgetplayed.com. 

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