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 Close Look At Technology's Impacts on Parenting

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.

Parents appreciated being able to work from home, but it was not without cost.

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.

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.

Connected Parents Are Pulled in Every Direction
When parents are able to work from home, they use technology to remain connected to work while they are at home with their children. This means the boundary between home and work can become blurred. Parents appreciated being able to work from home, but it was not without cost. They felt compelled to attend to their screens because they didn't want to miss out on something at work or be perceived or as being less available than colleagues.

Yet they found that it was difficult to mentally shift between work focus and child focus. It was difficult to respond appropriately to their children's behaviors when their mind was on work issues that were presented on their screens.

“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.

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.

“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.”

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.

Some parents described feeling overloaded by news, information and social media. This extended to social communications such as Facebook and text messages from friends. They described headaches and mental fatigue from keeping up with all that is out there, which negatively impacted their ability to be emotionally available to their children.

Connected Parents Are Better Coordinated
In addition to the basic benefit of being able to be home with their children, parents reported a positive side to technology is the ability to coordinate information and connectivity with their children and the people in their children's lives such as doctors and teachers. This also held true for coordinating the needs of other family members such as aging parents.

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.

Having the ability to contact friends and work peers can help alleviate the boredom, isolation and stress of parenting.

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.

How Parents Can Find A Better Balance

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:

  • Set boundaries by coming up with a family plan that includes unplugged spaces or times of day. You could make the dinner table a tech-free zone; or abolish tech use when you first get home and your kids are excited to see you or at bedtime. Maybe you plug in your device in a particular room and only use it there or agree not to use it in certain areas of the house.
  • Track your mobile use to see where you may be spending too much time. If 90 percent of your digital activity is on Facebook or work email, for example, you can think of ways to cut down these activities.
  • Identify top device stressors. Think about which parts of your mobile device use are most stressful for you. If it's reading the news or checking work email, for example, do these tasks when you know your kids are occupied. This way, you have your own time and space to process the information rather than interrupting time with kids who may react to your negative emotions with their own negativity.
  • The study is published in in the Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics.