Put Down Your Phone and Parent!

You’ve seen the signs and bumper stickers: Put down your phone and drive!  Maybe you’ve even said it yourself when you’ve been cut you off in traffic and you noticed that the driver had a cell phone plastered to his or her ear.  And the “Don’t text and drive” campaigns are pretty brutal these days with their images of dead and broken young people whose lives are forever changed because they didn’t wait to send that reply.  But my concern about society’s addiction to the smart phone is outside the automobile.


Mobile devices are changing parent-child interactions in ways that we are only just beginning to understand and the effects are not good.  Pediatricians, educators and psychologists have been warning for a decade or more that children have been spending too much time watching television and playing computer games and not enough time engaging in creative play or getting exercise.  What is now starting to be understood is that parents and caregivers have become so absorbed in their mobile devices that it has markedly changed the way they interact with the children for whom they care.


It’s a familiar scene at any fast food restaurant: a harried parent a cell phone in hand with one, two or three kids of various ages and their special kids’ meals.  The adult’s head is down looking at the phone, finger swiping away, while the kids are variously eating, climbing around in the booth, running back and forth to get straws, ketchup, pick things up off the floor, bicker, and (depending on their age) cause different amounts of mayhem.  Mom or dad will occasionally direct a child to “eat your food,” “sit back down,” “stop bothering your sister!” and all the other things that parents say to their kids in this situation (often with rising volume), all the while continuously swiping at the little plastic screen.  And the kids keep doing what kids do–ignoring what the parent says, because really who is talking to them?


Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston University Medical Center, and her colleagues decided to study what happens in exactly this scenario.  In 2013, they observed 55 such interactions between parents, nannies, and children in fast food restaurants; in 40 instances the caregivers became absorbed in their smartphones.  The researchers noticed that in some instances the children increased their bids for the caregiver’s attention: singing, acting silly, even going so far as touching their parent’s face.  The worrisome part–the more engrossed the caregiver was in their smartphone the more likely they were to respond harshly to the child’s behavior–often scolding the child for behaviors that were likely intended simply to get the parent to pay attention to the child rather than the phone.


Catherine Steiner-Adair interviewed more than 1,000 children for her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age (2013).  She was surprised to hear the degree to which no matter what age they reported feeling sadness, anger, frustration and exhaustion vying for their parents’ attention against technology.


Children learn everything from vocabulary to emotional control from their face-to-face interactions with us.  So isn’t it time to put the phone away and give them the attention they so desperately need?  Just like the texting and driving campaign says: “It can wait.”  Reviewing your Facebook page, surfing the web, playing Candy Crush, or replying to texts or emails are rarely life or death matters.  Yes, sometimes an email or text is important and time-sensitive.  Sometimes a phone call is important enough that you need to take it in the middle of dinner–or a therapy session.  But those should be the exception to the rule.  “It can wait.”  Your child’s emotional well-being can’t.