“Well, when can we go?” My three kids, ages six, nine and 12, stood before me with frustrated faces, as though they’d been waiting a long time for an answer.
“Go where?” I asked. My eyes fought to look up from my tiny phone screen and then struggled to refocus on their faces.
“To the pool! Mom, you were looking for the pool hours.”
I’m not sure how long it had been since I picked up my phone for the search. My various apps and notifications had led me deep down digital rabbit holes. Dozens of times a day, as I walk, eat and parent, my phone distracts me and, embarrassingly, the kids are starting to notice. Child psychologists are also noticing, and they’re concerned—not for me, but for my kids.
Our tech tools have become essential for our work, play and comfort. My phone is my research assistant, as well as my yoga teacher. It gets me to meetings on time, reminds me to call the dentist, deposits cheques, encourages me to take deep breaths—it even tracks my hormone cycles so that I only have to experience them, not be attuned to them.
But these devices aren’t as benign as we all thought when we opened their stiff boxes and gloried in the shiny glass screens in which we could check our lipstick. They have been designed to capture our attention and keep us coming back to monitor the popularity of our status, read our most recent notifications and find out the latest trending stories. We pick up our phones as many as 150 times per day, creating short interruptions in our real-world relationships. This has experts wondering: Are smartphones impeding the critical human connections that for millennia have been the primary way parents have transferred rules, skills and social norms to the next generation?
Humans learn best through person-to-person, in-the-flesh interactions. Jeanne Williams, a child psychologist and play therapist based in Edmonton, explains that this interaction-based learning begins long before a child is verbal. At birth, a baby’s brain has a hundred billion neurons, most of which are not connected. The neurons begin to form connections with one another when the child engages with their parents and others around them—for instance, when a baby smiles and their parent smiles back, or a baby cries and a parent responds with a hug.
These types of reciprocal exchanges are known as “serve and return” interactions, because they work like a game in which a ball is volleyed back and forth. The child sends a signal, and the parent responds. Serve and return helps connect neurons in the brain to support language and communication skills, and as a child grows, these interactions help them learn emotional control, as well as important non-verbal emotional cues (for instance, what anger and happiness look like). The more responsive we are to their elemental attempts at communication, Williams says, “the more they learn the world is a pretty safe place.”
But for all of this learning to happen, the “served” communication must be promptly “returned.” While I’m no sports fan, even I know there is no game if one team stops bumping back. And that’s exactly what happens when our devices interrupt our interactions with our kids. Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine observed that when parents were distracted by a device at dinner, they had 20 percent less conversation with their kid and 39 percent fewer non-verbal interactions.
The tech interruptions start early on in our relationships with our kids, disrupting even little things like eye contact. And the consequences are real. University of Cambridge researchers have found that when mom and baby lock eyes, their brainwave patterns sync up so that scans of their brain activity look very similar. Researchers concluded that gaze powerfully signals to the baby that mom is available and interested in communicating, and the baby in turn will make more vocalizations and greater attempts to interact.
So when breastfeeding moms use devices to pass the time, lactation consultants are worried they’re missing those critical bonding opportunities that come from looking their babies in the eye. It’s true that texting or social scrolling can connect us to friends and family at a time when we’re isolated and feeding on the couch, but by getting lost in notifications and never-ending pictures of other people’s super cute babies, we miss out on the connection our babies may be trying to have with us.
Missed opportunities continue as our children begin to process emotion through conversation. “Often, the effect of looking down at a screen can eliminate the opportunity and space kids need to say what’s on their mind,” warns Williams. That’s why, when I drive the kids to school and activities, and have no distractions, they become exponentially more open to sharing stories about their day.
As kids grow, being available and responsive also helps them learn emotional regulation. “When a kid is distressed and you completely ignore them, their distress is going to grow,” Williams says. “They won’t build neural pathways that teach them how to soothe themselves.”
The inconsistent and unpredictable responses that often evolve from tech distraction (sometimes I ignore you; sometimes I don’t) can be especially harmful to kids. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, decided to measure the effect. She had parents self-report their normal technology use and their child’s temperament. The children whose parents used their phones more had a harder time reconnecting with their parents and displayed fewer signs of happiness and curiosity overall. What this means for kids’ emotional health later in life is of concern to Dennis-Tiwary: “If we disrupt our one-on-one time by disappearing into our smartphones, then they will learn to disconnect in similar ways.” She fears that parents’ cellphone use is teaching kids that technological distraction is the way to handle boredom and negative feelings. “If our children learn to navigate these challenging moments with devices, they may have fewer and less flexible strategies at their disposal to cope with day-to-day social ups and downs.”
And if this weren’t enough to jolt me from my scrolling-induced reverie, there are also the physical consequences of distracted parenting. One study matched hospital data against the slow rollout of 3G cell networks in the US. When cell service became available, local hospitals reported a 10 percent spike in emergency room visits for kids under six. The study’s author argued that it wasn’t because kids were involved in riskier activities; it was because parents were distracted.
It’s not like distracted parenting is new. From constantly watching for predators in our early cave-dwelling days to dealing with gruelling work weeks during the Industrial Revolution, parents have always had activities that pulled their focus from their kids. Tech-induced distraction is also not new—parents of previous generations had car radios and sports on TV. However, today’s technology is designed to draw us in and follow us wherever we go. Vast amounts of money and science go into playing on our vulnerabilities in order to attract and keep our attention. Unfortunately, it seems to have a detrimental effect on our ability to focus on anything else. In fact, according to one study, my goldfish now has a longer attention span than I do.
With such a well-funded and successful campaign to capture our attention, how can our kids compete? They try. Brandon McDaniel, assistant professor in Human Development and Family Science at Illinois State University, has studied “technoference,” as he has dubbed it, since 2012. In a recent study published in Pediatric Research, he observed that the more parents were distracted by tech, the more kids acted out. But it didn’t stop there; it became a cycle. As kids acted out, parents became stressed, and when parents were stressed, they turned to technology, which, of course, only led to more acting out. He empathizes with parents who are just responding to pressure in our hyper-connected world, but he feels it is important to sound the alarm: “We are allowing tech to interfere with our relationships, and that feeds back into how our children are doing.” Don’t I know it: My kids get louder, get closer, grab my chin and suddenly, I pay attention—but usually it is only to ask them to settle down.
While I can’t give up my phone, I want to manage my distraction. McDaniel suggests I start with analyzing my phone use. By downloading a few apps (I tried Moment, Mute and RealizD, but Apple’s iOS 12 also has a Screen Time feature), I’ve been able to track my usage and the number of times I pick it up. The analytics tell a story about my emotional, social and professional reliance on my phone. I’m most vulnerable to being distracted by my phone after I post on social media or in the late afternoon when I’m tired from the day (and, unfortunately, just when my kids return from school).
McDaniel says we have to take the time to create strategies to better manage our tech use. I decided to set a tech-free zone at the dinner table and in my bedroom, but McDaniel discourages a one-size-fits-all approach to managing the distractions: “Tech-free zones work differently for every family.” He encourages families to consider when and where tech-free times would work best for them.
Most phone-use tracking apps come with goal-setting tools, and when I ask Williams about what goals she recommends, she says, “Try to have some regular time that you are 100 percent focused on your kid.” Start with scheduling one or two playtimes every week. That might mean 20 minutes of playing catch in the front yard or swimming at the pool, but whatever it is, commit to no distractions. By being really present, she says, “you’re primed to hear if your kids have something to talk about, or see a scowl and have the availability to ask, ‘What’s up?’”
Williams also urges me to limit my unnecessary screen time, like surfing social media after the kids get home from school. “It’s OK to use our phones to chill out, but try to keep it to when kids are in school or in bed. Ask yourself, Do I really need to be on here?”
But what about all those times when looking up an address, turning on music or finding a recipe is necessary? Although I need to do these things, to my kids, it all appears like distraction. Without the visual and audio cues I had as a child—when I could see my parents looking at a map or going to the post office—my kids are often left in the dark as to what I’m doing or planning.
To combat this, I say out loud what I’m up to so they know I’m arranging their summer camp registration or finding the perfect birthday cake recipe. This way, they know when they can interrupt. When appropriate, I’ll mirror my screen on the TV, so we can meditate together on Headspace or edit pictures collaboratively. Williams says kids love being included when we’re trying to solve problems and often have ideas of their own. “Talking with your kids about the struggle you are having to achieve balance with your technology is a huge opportunity to learn together with your kids what balance looks like for your family.”
McDaniel’s final piece of advice is simple: Look up. “If your child walks in to get your attention, look in their eyes instead of looking at your device.” Adults understand that a person focused on their phone is distracted or attending to another task, but McDaniel says young children can’t comprehend that their parent still values them over technology. By looking your child in the eye, he says, “You’ve shown them that you are listening, and they are learning that the device doesn’t have more value than them.”
The other day, McDaniel’s advice came to mind when I found selfies of my 11-year-old daughter on my phone. They were blurry photos in very close range of her eye. It was as if she were saying, “Look at me.”
I took it as a reminder to look up. There’s no app for that.
This article was originally published online in December 2018.