Smartphone Distracted Parenting Is a Bad Habit

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
July 27, 2016

Kids are complaining they have to compete for parents’ time. Do you need to put down your smartphone once in a while?

You may constantly be giving your kids a hard time over having their heads buried in their smartphones, but it might be the pot calling the kettle black. 

A pilot study found that parental distraction by device is actually very common. Secretly watching 55 caregivers, researchers saw that 40 used a mobile device during a meal at a restaurant and 16 used it throughout the meal.  

The seed for the study was a parent’s own questions about the impact of device distraction. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, and the mother of two small children, wanted to know how common it is for parents to use devices with their kids present, she told NBC News.

“When I talk about it with siblings or friends, everyone struggles with it,” Radesky said. “We want some guidance and balance. We need to stay connected with email, work and friends, and still be present with our kids.”

Radesky’s research team found that the caregivers most engaged in smart devices were also the most likely to respond harshly to mischievous behavior, says the educational blog Kars4Kids. One child had his foot kicked hard under the table while a mother pushed her son’s hands away when he tried to lift her face up and away from her tablet screen.

"We did find it striking that during caregiver absorption with devices, some children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves, whereas others showed increasing bids for attention that were often answered with negative parent responses," the authors wrote.

Other researchers already have their opinions cemented about the impact, saying it’s having a negative effect. “I have quotes from college students depicting childhoods when they could not get parents’ attention during meals,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” said to NBC News

Turkle says she’s troubled with the communication “pathology” that’s started when parents don’t respond well to their children by resorting to their own distraction. 


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Others say it’s a safety risk. Citing a study of injury statistics by The Wall Street Journal, Kars4Kids says injury rates for children went up from 2007 to 2010, when experts expected them to decline due to improved safety measures and safer play equipment. 

When the Journal also looked at smartphone statistics during the same period, the rate of smartphone users went up from 6 percent to 30 percent. 

“That may not sound like much until you consider that more than half of Americans use mobile phones,” says Kars4Kids. “During that time, injuries due to playground equipment rose by 17 percent while injuries due to nursery room equipment went up by 31 percent.”

Accidents can happen quickly, easily within the time it takes to look at your phone for a few seconds and then back to your child. The eyes and the mind don’t automatically register what your child is doing, but remain stuck on the phone content for a precious few moments before a child’s live action clicks back in. 

Children are also talking about their concerns over their parents preoccupation with smartphone use, says clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” Her very young patients in particular note that they have to compete for their parents’ attention because their parents’ faces are buried in screens. 

"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 and it's like they completely disconnect from the moment," Steiner-Adair tells the American Psychological Association (APA). "It's upsetting to us as grown-ups when we do it to each other, and it's especially upsetting to children when their parents do it to them."

A study by psychologists at the University of Essex found that just having a phone on the table — even if it's turned off — makes people sitting around the table feel more disconnected, and “keeps conversations lighter and more focused on topics of little controversy or consequence for fear of being interrupted,” says the APA report. 


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February 27, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN