Screen-based devices such as smart phones and tablets are everywhere — at dinner tables, in meetings and on the playground. For better or for worse, they offer instant connection to friends, colleagues and strangers, as well as immediate access to information. They also interfere with our ability to pay attention to the people and tasks before us, and when those people and tasks are our children, the distraction of our online connectedness can be a problem.
Kids need the benefit of parents' full attention a great deal of the time. It helps them learn about the world and develop social and mental skills. So what happens to that focus when a work email comes in and suddenly the parent who has been reading or playing with his or her little one is called upon to respond to a crisis at the office?
A recent study looked to explore the ups and downs of screen use by parents, hoping to uncover a way to maximizing their benefits and minimizing the burdens of those seductive technologies on children and their parents.
The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 35 mothers, fathers and grandmothers of children ranging in age from birth to 8 years old. They asked about family structure, digital devices and family rules for use of devices. They also inquired about when the devices were helpful, how their use impacted their children's behavior and whether using devices to work from home was a help or a hazard.
Parents appreciated being able to work from home, but it was not without cost.
Participants came from diverse ethnic, educational and employment backgrounds. Their detailed descriptions of the conflicts that can arise when parenting while connected are bound to resonate with other parents. Luckily, they did note that this technology offers parents a few benefits as well.
“Parents are constantly feeling like they are in more than one place at once while parenting. They're still ‘at work.’ They're keeping up socially. All while trying to cook dinner and attend to their kids,” lead author, Jenny Radesky, M.D., said in a statement.
“It's much harder to toggle between mom or dad brain and other aspects of life because the boundaries have all blurred together. We wanted to understand how this was affecting parents emotionally. We found that parents are struggling to balance family time and the desire to be present at home with technology-based expectations like responding to work and other demands.”
Do stressful mobile device tasks when you know your kids are occupied, rather than interrupting time with kids, who may react to your negative emotions with their own negativity.
Parents also felt pressured by the culture of instant accessibility that the Internet fosters and felt they had to answer contacts immediately. They described receiving unwanted or unexpected news via digital technology that raised their stress level because it demanded immediate responses, pulling them in two directions both emotionally and practically.
Another positive was that the ability to contact friends and work peers helped alleviate the boredom, isolation and stress of parenting. Many noted that use of video games and social contacts were helpful in times of feeling especially alone and disconnected from the world. This too has its cost, as gaming, texting and emails often escalate into yet another task to complete or level to achieve.
The researchers note that when parents are focused on digital technology, they have fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions with their children. This can slow a child's language acquisition and development of social skills. And research has shown that paying attention to screens actually impairs cognitive processes for other tasks. For example, when parents are playing with or teaching children, the interruptions of digital devices changes the way they interact and teach their children, making their effort less effective.
Having the ability to contact friends and work peers can help alleviate the boredom, isolation and stress of parenting.
Clearly, parents have a complicated relationship with this technology. Equally clear is that this technology is here to stay and will continue to evolve.
“You don't have to be available to your children 100 percent of the time — in fact, it's healthy for them to be independent. It's also important for parents to feel relevant at work and other parts of their lives,” Radesky, a child behavior expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, who conducted the study with colleagues from Boston Medical Center, adds. “However, we are seeing parents overloaded and exhausted from being pulled in so many different directions.”
Radesky offers a few suggestions to help parents get their media use under better control:
The study is published in in the Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics.