Digitally Distracted Parenting Part 1: How our inability to put down our devices is affecting our kids.

In my parenting world, one of the things my husband and I deeply value is the commitment to a “no shaming” rule in our house.  This no shaming rule also applies to articles I write or post here on the blog.

That said, some of you may find my series of posts on Digital Distraction difficult to read because of guilt or feelings of shame over the amount of time you spend looking at your mobile device.  If so, may I just say…I understand.  Completely.

First, let’s just admit it right now.  Americans think that mobile devices are great, and I am one of them.  Spending time on them is enjoyable.  They entertain us.  They take the monotony out of the park or the playground. They help us feel connected to others.  They help us pass the time while waiting for food, doctors, or friends.  They keep us in the loop.  They help us manage our schedules, our fitness levels, and a million other things.  They allow us to stay informed without the aid of the nightly news.  They allow us to customize our content.  Discover new places.  Help us find our way.  Our devices give us a voice, and they free many of us from an office. I get this.  I really do.  And…

I have a passion for bringing awareness to important issues that affect our ability to parent well.  Because sometimes, there are things we fail to see clearly even though they may be right before us.  Digital Distraction is one of these issues.  When we as parents are constantly distracted, we are missing vital opportunities for connection with those we love and which every one of our children is hard wired to need.

I am not talking about screen addiction.  That issue is widely researched.  The issue of Digital Distraction in parents is far less talked about in our culture, and is so vitally important.  Below are just a few studies demonstrating the damage that happens when parents are digitally distracted and less responsive while physically present with their kids.

Parental Distraction by Mobile Devices Hinders Development.

A study published last year in Developmental Science.  infants and toddlers from seven months to two years old were assessed for temperament, social engagement, exploration, and post-disruption reunion and recovery. The researchers reported that children expressed more distress, and were less likely to explore their environment, when their mothers were using their mobile devices.  Professor Dennis-Tiwary and her colleagues examined the impact of parents’ use of mobile devices infants aged 7 to 24 months. The researchers focused on three periods of mother-child interaction:  (1) playful contact between a mother and her baby, (2) the mother’s mobile device time, (3) the “reunion,” when the mother’s attention returned to the baby.

“We found that infants expressed more distress, and explored less, during maternal device use compared to the free play and reunion periods. Moreover, greater habitual use of mobile devices by mothers outside the lab predicted less emotional recovery in infants during the reunion period,” Professor Dennis-Tiwary said. “Results suggest that, like other forms of maternal withdrawal and unresponsiveness, the use of mobile devices use has a negative impact on infant social-emotional functioning and parent-child interactions.” 

Further corroboration comes from a recent study done by the University of California Irvine’s Dr. Tallie Z. Baram and colleagues in which they studied the emotional outcomes of adolescent rats reared in either calm or chaotic environments and used mathematical approaches to analyze the mothers’ nurturing behaviors. The key takeaway here is that the study showed the ways distracted parental attention harms development, especially babies’ ability to process pleasure and engage in social activity.  What differed was the type of attention babies received from their mothers. The distracted mothers tended to be less predictable, less reliable, and less attentive. The researchers discovered that fragmented and chaotic maternal care disrupts brain development.  Baram states,  “We simply must have predictability and consistency for the emotional system to develop normally.”  “Our work builds on many studies showing that… it is not how much maternal care that influences adolescent behavior but the avoidance of fragmented and unpredictable care that is crucial. We might wish to turn off the mobile phone when caring for baby and be predictable and consistent.”

Because cellphones have become so ubiquitous and users have become so accustomed to frequently checking and utilizing them, the findings of this study are highly relevant to today’s mothers and babies, and tomorrow’s adolescents and adults.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specializing in child development, became alarmed after noticing the majority of parents using cellphones and ignoring their children when she worked at a clinic in a high-tech savvy Seattle neighborhood. Radesky was so concerned she decided to study the behavior. She and her colleagues found that 73% of parents pulled out a device immediately after settling down with their children at public venues and used their devices consistently throughout the time, often appearing far more absorbed in their smartphones than their children.

This is tragic because because face-to-face interactions are the primary way small children learn. From infancy, “Children learn language, and they learn about their own emotions and how to regulate them” Radesky goes on, “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation and how to read other people’s facial expressions, and how to react. And if this is not happening, young children are missing out on really important development milestones.”  “There are plenty of non-electronic distractions out there. But the problem is, interactive technology and social media are designed to be emotionally absorbing and habit forming.”

Yet another rigorously designed experiment, this one conducted in the Philadelphia area by Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, and Temple’s Jessa Reed, tested the impact of parental cellphone use on children’s language learning. Thirty-eight mothers and their 2-year-olds were brought into a room. The mothers were then told that they would need to teach their children two new words (blicking, which was to mean “bouncing,” and frepping, which was to mean “shaking”) and were given a phone so that investigators could contact them from another room. When the mothers were interrupted by a call, the children did not learn the word, but otherwise they did. In an ironic coda to this study, the researchers had to exclude seven mothers from the analysis, because they didn’t answer the phone, “failing to follow protocol.” Good for them!

Screen use interferes with emotional and intellectual intelligence.

In 2003, University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3″ in which they discovered that in some families, preschoolers heard on average 600 words per hour. But in other families, preschoolers heard about 1200 words per hour while in a third group of families preschoolers heard over 2100 words per hour.  The difference adds up to more than 30 million words between ages 2 and 5 years.  The most important finding in the study was that Hart and Risley found that children who heard fewer words had smaller vocabularies and knew fewer concepts. They were, in fact, less smart than other kids. A lot less.  Their landmark research concluded that Children must be talked with directly and listened to in order for conversation to contribute to their vocabularies and intellectual development.

The implications from this study apply profoundly today.  Imagine how many fewer interactions children are experiencing today in 2018, when parents are severely distracted by their device because the content on that device is more interesting and engaging for them than is interacting with their children.  Not only are children at high risk developmentally speaking, they will almost certainly emulate this behavior when they have their own mobile devices.

In Glow Kids by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, he builds the persuasive case that screen addiction is hijacking our kids and that parents need to break the trance.  Citing a plethora of studies correlating technology with disorders like ADHD, depression, and aggression, Kardaras establishes the profound consequences of screens on children’s brains.  While the book focuses heavily on the negative impact of video games, it also offers substantial research on the damaging effects of social media and the problems with educational reforms that rely on technology.

Setting the right example for them begins now.

Digital Distraction leads to behavioral problems and acting out in children.

A study recently published (May 2017) in the journal Child Development is the first to explore how parental digital technology use affects children’s behavior.  The study investigates whether parental problematic technology use is associated with technology-based interruptions in parent–child interactions, which the authors termed “technoference,” and whether technoference is associated with child behavior problems.  Results suggest that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors.  Mothers who reported that their use of mobile devices interrupted their interactions with their children report more behavior problems in their children, such as sulkiness, hyperactivity, bad temper and frustration. The fathers in these families also independently reported more behavior problems in these children. These links even persisted when the researchers controlled for parent stress, depression, and co-parenting.   “As technoference increased, so did children’s behavioral problems, such as whining, sulking, restlessness, temper tantrums and acting out. The children’s own use of devices (their screen time) also increased. The researchers wrote that “even low and seemingly normative amounts of technoference were associated with greater child behavior problems.”

Digital Distracted parents may lead to some children to take more risks.  

The American Pediatrics Association recently revealed that more children are being treated for more severe injuries from playground accidents than in the past. Parents were observed at playgrounds where they looked at their phones, talked to each other, and did other things more often than they looked at their kids.These distracted parents gave their children the perfect opportunity to take risks that could otherwise be prevented such as throwing sand, climbing up the slide, or jumping from large heights. Over 200,000 children under 14 years of age are treated in emergency rooms for playground-related injuries each year, and children will take risks regardless. While none of the children in this study were seriously injured, researchers noted that children are more likely to take those risks when their parent is distracted.

Not only is there a potential for physical harm when distracted parenting happens, it can also be emotionally damaging if a child or teen feels that their parent is too busy to be attentive or connected to them at the moment. Children may even engage in risky behavior just to attract the attention of distracted parents, and distracted parents are not as responsive to their kids, or as sensitive to their needs.

Parents, instead, might share that perfect Instagram pic of their kid going down the slide rather than going down with them. Parents may be more interested in posting about their family dinner rather than participating in a conversation at the table. These actions in place of making eye contact, engaging in conversation, and actively participating in play can leave a child wondering what they need to do to regain the attention of their parent(s).

Screen use disrupts the vital connection to kids that characterizes healthy parenting.

Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair is an internationally recognized clinical psychologist, school consultant and award winning author of the book called The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.  She writes, “The focus of family has turned to the glow of the screen—children constantly playing on devices, texting their friends while going online to do homework, and parents working online or using social media around the clock—everyday life is undergoing a massive transformation.”  “Technology and the internet are fragmenting American families, leaving parents confused and children lonely.”

In research for her book, Steiner-Adair interviewed 1,000 children between the ages of 4 and 18, asking them about their parents’ use of mobile devices. The language that came up over and over and over again, she says, was “sad, mad, angry and lonely.” One 4-year-old called his dad’s smartphone a “stupid phone.” Others recalled joyfully throwing their parent’s phone into the toilet, putting it in the oven or hiding it. There was one girl who said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, anytime — even on the ski lift!”

Steiner-Adair explains that “When you’re texting or answering email, the part of your brain that is engaged is the ‘to do’ part, [executive function] where there’s also a desire to get the task accomplished, a sense of time pressure. So we’re much more irritable when interrupted.”  Further, when parents focus on their digital world first — ahead of their children — there can be deep emotional consequences for the child, Steiner-Adair says. “We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them,

Occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience), but chronic distraction is another story.  Mobile device use has been associated with a familiar sign of addiction: Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention. Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her non-engagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today is something altogether different, governed by the beeps and enticements of mobile devices. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always physically present, yet only fitfully present.

Children must have consistent, dependable, FOCUSED, loving attention to thrive.

When you are plugged into your screen, there is a part of your brain that lights up.   Steiner-Adair says. “Everything feels urgent — everything feels a little exciting. We get a little dopamine hit when we accomplish another email — check this, check that. And when a child is waiting by or comes into your room and it’s one of those mini-moments and you don’t know — that’s the hard thing about parenting — you don’t know if this is the ordinary question or they’re coming with something really important. It’s very hard as a grown-up to disengage and give them your attention with the [same] warmth that you give them, the same tone of voice that you greet them if they interrupt you when you’re scrambling eggs.”

A couple of years ago, my daughter got a laptop for school. And because she was becoming more independent, we got her a phone. We set up rules for when she could use this stuff and when she’d need to put it away. We created a charging station, outside her bedroom, where she had to plug in these devices every night. Basically — except for homework — she has to put it all away when she comes home.

Steiner-Adair says most adults don’t set up similar limits in their own lives.  “We’ve lost the boundaries that protect work and family life,” she says. “So it is very hard to manage yourself and be as present to your children in the moments they need you.”

Steiner-Adair says that whether you are a parent or not, carving out time to turn off your devices — to disconnect from the wired world and engage with the real people who are all around you — is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and the people your love.

Using a mobile device when you’re with a child is a form of psychological withdrawal and non-responsiveness. As much as possible, when you’re with your child, be with them. Let’s enjoy the time we have to help our children grow and develop into the delightful adult we hope they will become.

What to do about Digital Distraction?  You can read more in Part 2 here


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