Smartphones Can Contribute to 'Dumb' Parenting

According to a body of research increasingly robust in in the last 5 years, it appears a collective parental wake-up call is in order. Although researchers are still studying the effect of screen time on children, they’re now turning their trained eyes on us to see how our tech habits impact our parenting and our children. While no researcher is claiming causation between parental smartphone use and poor child outcomes, there is enough correlational evidence for parents to take notice.

·      Frequent social media use is one of the risk factors for “higher levels of maternal depression

·      According to the Center for the Digital Future, people report feeling “increasingly ignored by others in their own family households because of smartphone use”

·      A 2015 study of caregivers and kids on playgrounds demonstrated that children have a harder time getting the attention of parents distracted by smartphone use

·      Even teenagers – who you’d think would be delighted by distracted parents – reported “less parental warmth” and 11% said they “struggled quite a bit or a great deal to get their parent’s attention when their parent was on their cell phone or tablet” in a 2017 study

I raised my three now-young-adult children pre-digitally. These days, its fairly common to see a dad at the playground, benched and engrossed in his phone while a child desperately tries to get him to witness their feat on the monkey bars (admittedly, for the 10th time). Equally distressing is seeing moms pushing prams or strollers, deeply engaged in conversation with someone on the end of a headset rather than with their small child.

Frankly, I get it. Although I was late to the smartphone game, and was initially mystified when told my phone could take pictures - why would I need a phone to do that?  (I currently have 43,963 photos on my phone!)  I am very dependent on my phone and had to add an external case to get through the day. The other day I walked into the office building where I had a meeting only to realize I had left my phone in my car. Given my level of distress (“OMG, I don’t have my phone!”), you’d have thought I’d left a toddler locked in the back seat.   And yes, I went back to get it.

If ever there were a moment for intentional and mindful parenting, this would be it.

There are vast bodies of research on early-child brain development that point to the vital link between parent-child conversation and language development. As a young mom, I considered every walk and outing a chance for a complete conversation with my kids. Even when kids are pre-verbal, there is tremendous value in little ones being part of the conversation. As I found, it’s never too early to begin describing the wonders of the world they’ll soon come to talk about first-hand.

Famed child development researcher Dr. Edward Tronick spent his career “trying to put his feet into the shoes of an infant” to better understand how they function in the world. His research shows – in achingly painful detail – what children experience emotionally when parents aren’t responsive to their attempts to connect and communicate. Infants, even newborns, he says, endeavor to “make meaning about the world.” And they’re looking to us to help them.

So – given the stakes - what’s an intentional parent to do?

Inventory your tech habits when you’re with your children and take objective note of what you find.

Remember that this is about your kids’ well-being, not your (or your employer’s) needs.

Be mindful about what we – and our kids -- lose if we’re not present and available when we’re with them.  

Pivot. If you’re spending too much family time otherwise distracted by your phone, make and set some rules for yourself – and stick to them.

Finally, know that we are always modeling for our kids – even when we’re engaged in behavior we don’t want our children to emulate.  So be mindful of what you do, and teach your children by example.  Remember, its never too late to do better!