Here’s something you might be surprised to learn. Kids feel cut off from their parents. For her book, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist at Harvard, interviewed more than 1,000 children, aged 4-18. Over and over, she heard kids talk about how they felt frustrated or forlorn because their parents spent too much time on their cell phones. The same results showed up in the State of the Kid Survey, done by Highlights children’s magazine in 2014. Over half the children surveyed reported their parents often didn’t respond to them because they were distracted by technology — laptops, cell phones, or television.
Several researchers have observed that interacting with technology is different from other parenting activities like cooking, shopping, or even driving. Cell phones, in particular, are designed to grab and hold attention, so people lose track of other things including how much time they’ve spent staring at the device. E-mailing, texting, even scrolling through social media, preoccupies parents in a way that can make children feel shut out, lonely, and unimportant.
At the same time, giving kids constant undivided attention isn’t possible or desirable. Children need to learn how to soothe and amuse themselves. They benefit from opportunities to play and daydream without the direct supervision of adults. Also, good parenting can’t happen in a vacuum.
Adults must earn a living and stay informed. They are also likely to be more grounded and happier if they stay connected to colleagues, friends, and other parents — something that is supported by new technologies.
In other words, cell phones and other tech distractions aren’t a problem in and of themselves. They become a problem when parents aren’t mindful about how they distribute their most precious resource — attention. Here are things to consider:
Focus on safety. After years of decline, visits to pediatric emergency rooms have been on the rise. No one can prove cell phones are responsible but research shows that adults who use cell phones while walking, much less driving, are more likely to have accidents. For safety’s sake, parents (and other caregivers) should put away all devices when supervising kids in risky settings: changing tables, bathtubs, parking lots, city streets, swimming pools, and playgrounds, where even a moment of inattention can be dangerous.
Make the most of reunions. Adair recommends putting devices on hold when family members see each other after they’ve been separated. Make yourself fully available when you pick your child up from daycare or other activities and when someone (including your spouse) walks into the house. Plan ahead so you can stop what you’re doing and let your child know how happy you are to see him or her.
Teach and appreciate patience. There is nothing wrong with asking a child to wait while an adult finishes a task. How long a child can be patient depends upon age, temperament, and other stresses, so you’ll want to take those variables into account when you ask for “just a sec” to finish something on your phone or laptop. Be sure not to take advantage of your child’s self- control. If you promised to get a snack or play a game in 10 minutes, set a timer so you keep your commitment. And thank your child for being patient.
Respect tech-free zones. Many families enjoy each other’s company more if they put technology off-limits at particular times. Meals and bedtime are obvious choices, but you might also set aside time for a walk after dinner or game night on the weekend. Some families make the car a tech-free zone, although others depend on movies or games to relieve the stress of a long commute. Once you decide on rules that make sense for your family, be sure you follow as well as enforce them. Before checking in with a ping that seems urgent, think about what you’re telling your children about their place in your priorities.
Monitor emotions. Do you feel irritated when your child wants your attention? In one recent study, researchers observed caregivers and children in a restaurant. Most of the adults used a cell phone during the meal, and those who were most focused on their phones responded harshly to interruptions. Some kids gave up and sat passively, but others became more disruptive in an effort to get the adult’s attention. If negative feelings are building in you or your child, it’s time to take a tech break and tune in to what’s happening. Stop and focus on your child. If you have to correct misbehavior, feel compassion for what has caused it. Notice what your child is doing right. Ask yourself what you can do to restore good feelings.
Make good use of found time. Even when life is very busy, there are moments of unclaimed time. Your toddler is napping. Your school-age child is playing happily with a friend. Your teen is engrossed in homework. Use these moments to replenish rather than deplete your energies. If you reach for your device, be selective. Answer the e-mail that’s weighing on your conscience. Reach out to the friend who lifts your spirits. Pay attention to your feelings. Does a hit of social media feel refreshing? Or would you be better served using found time on exercise, crossing off something on the to-do list, or daydreaming with a cup of tea?
Finally, think about times in your life when you have felt treasured and loved. In all likelihood, you had another person’s full attention. Be sure your child regularly has that experience in your company. Read together. Share a snack. Take a walk. Play a game. Snuggle before bedtime. What you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you let go of everything else so your child can feel the security and warmth of your undistracted love.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing about tech issues and family for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Read more at her blog: growing-up-online.com.