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April 01, 2016

Researchers secretly observed 55 families dining in fast food restaurants to see how often parents directed their attention to their smartphones rather than to their children. Forty parents (73%) engaged with their devices at some point during the meal, with 16 of those parents (40%) engrossed in those devices for the entire meal — “swiping, texting and ignoring their children altogether.”i

Increasingly it’s an era of distracted parenting. Our handheld devices make it possible to direct our attention toward our screens when we’re with our children — rather than toward the kids themselves. Years ago, we might have spent waiting time chatting with our sons and daughters — in line at the grocer or until the server brought our food — but nowadays, our brain can’t resist the dopamine surge when a ping announces a new text or email, or the phone chime goes off. Our kids are then waiting until we come up for air, and too often, what they receive are attentional leftovers.

“I’ve heard so many stories about how a parent will be in the middle of an important conversation with the child and then their phone goes off and they’ll take a call. It’s like they completely disconnect from the moment,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of a book on the impact of parenting in the digital age.ii “It’s upsetting to us as grown-ups when we do it to each other, and it’s especially upsetting to children when parents do it to them.”iii

Text distractions can disconnect the parent-child moment every bit as much as taking a phone call. When that happens, consider the message it sends our kids about where they rank in our hierarchy of what’s important. And compare it to the very different — and powerful — message when they see us ignoring our smartphone so that we can keep our attention focused on them — and only them. What’s important now?

For those occasional (and rare) unavoidable interruptions, Steiner-Adair suggests keeping the parent-child connection alive by letting the kids know what you’re doing on your device while you’re doing it. I have an unhappy colleague asking for my help, or I’m letting Grandma know we’ll see her in twenty minutes. By doing this, you’re reducing your child’s sense of isolation from you at those moments when your device steals you away.

References & Citations

i Radesky, Jenny S., et al.  “Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants.” Pediatrics Apr 2014, 133 (4) e843-e849; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3703

ii Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: Harper.

iii Steiner-Adair, C. quoted in Novotney, Amy. (February, 2016.) “Smartphone=not-so-smart parenting?” Monitor on Psychology. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association.