Distracted Parenting // You’d never let your children have a smartphone. But is your screen time hurting them?

It was before the age of smartphones. I was traveling north on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn and I picked up my phone, perhaps a BlackBerry, to make a phone call. Then I heard a voice through a loud megaphone sounding in my car: “Get off the phone!”

It was clear. I put the phone down and looked around. I didn’t know the police had the ability to communicate so clearly with the people in the cars around them. But I didn’t see any police cars riding alongside me.
“Is this some kind of joke?” I thought. “Who said that?”

I couldn’t figure it out. Was it someone with a loudspeaker standing on the divider? A bat kol? Maybe it was just in my head and not actually audible. Although I couldn’t determine the source of the voice, once I eliminated police involvement, I assumed the voice had come to save me from whatever might have resulted from my distraction.

My ride up Ocean Parkway continued uneventfully. But fast-forward to today, and we—myself included—are much more distracted, and the words I heard through that megaphone are weighted with much more meaning.

Those who have smartphones and kids might think that the number-one problem involving the two is keeping the kids away from phones.

Right now, my phone is completely boring. It’s locked and nothing can be downloaded. There are no games, no fun apps, and I even disabled Siri. (This was the top attraction for my kids: “Siri, show me a picture of a cobra. Siri, show me a picture of a butterfly.”) But kids still want the phone even if nothing is on it and the only interesting activity is punching numbers on the calculator.

“We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, ‘That’s where it’s all at; that’s where I need to be!’” says tech executive Linda Stone.

Linda, an executive with Apple and then Microsoft, was involved in emerging technologies in the 1980s and ’90s; she saw firsthand how the technology she was helping to bring to market was changing the focus of the generation. In 1998, she coined the phrase “continuous partial attention,” which means paying partial attention to numerous things simultaneously. Since then, she’s frequently lectured and written about the challenges of living in a hyperconnected world.

“We learn by imitation from the very start. That’s how we’re wired,” she says. It’s not enough to try to keep kids away if parents themselves assign great importance to the phone.

The Phone or the Kids
A mother is holding her baby on her lap and staring at her cell phone. Her two other sons, a preschooler and a school-age child, are sitting in chairs near her, staring around. They appear to be almost finished eating. Their mother is finished too.

Mom looks up and asks her middle child in a frustrated tone of voice if he can please finish. The oldest boy wiggles in his chair.

“Sit down,” she says without looking up from her phone. The oldest boy is now looking at his shoes, the ground, the chair, but he is not getting out of his chair.

“Just sit. Please listen,” she says again. Then she looks at her middle son and says, “Just two more minutes. Please eat.”

He starts whining and picks up his juice box. Mom looks back at her phone.

“My straw fell in,” the middle son complains.

Mom whisks the juice box away. “You pushed it in. Now you can’t have it anymore.”

Her son is not bothered.

“Are you finished eating?” she asks him.

“I’m not finished,” he says. Then he gets up and wanders around the table.

Mom gets up, holding the baby, picks up his plate and throws it out.

There was always lots to be said about the dangers of mobile devices for drivers and the dangers of screen time for kids. But until 2014, no one had talked about the way children are affected by the mobile-device habits of their parents.

For two months in 2013, three women, all physicians and child development researchers, ventured out all over the Boston area and spent their afternoons and early evenings dining alone in fast-food restaurants. They took note pads or laptops and ordered food. They dined in diverse neighborhoods with varying income levels, and as they ate, they spied on the tables alongside them.

Their subjects were easy to find. They were looking for either a mother or a father or both, dining with any number of young children. As soon as the researchers spotted such a family, they slipped into the table next to them and surreptitiously observed their behavior. In total, they watched 55 interactions. Of those, 40 parents took out a smartphone while they ate with their children. Their goal was to see how parents interacted with their mobile devices and with their children compared to those who didn’t.

The resulting study, published in 2014, was the first to document the effect of parents’ mobile phone use. And it found that the more the parent was absorbed in his or her smartphone, the more harshly they treated their children.

“Face-to-face interactions are important for cognitive, language and emotional  development,” one of the study authors, Dr. Jenny Radesky, also explains. “Before mobile devices existed, mealtime was a time where we would’ve seen those interactions.”

I am sitting and watching my two youngest, 18 months and not yet three years, play on a kiddie trampoline in my backyard. They giggle and jump, climb up and slide down. They don’t really need me right now, except to observe. My phone is somewhere indoors, perhaps in the charger, perhaps on my desk; I really don’t know. But I’m tempted right now to get something done while I watch my kids play. Why should I sit here doing nothing?

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