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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Distracted Parenting, Cell Phones, and Technoference

Everyone who has been a parent—or a teacher, nanny, babysitter, or other caregiver—knows what it is to multitask. Taking something out of a hot oven while using your knee to block a crawling baby from approaching this interesting event, remembering that you need to call for a doctor’s appointment while getting a shoe on a small foot, replying to “right, Mom, right?” while writing a grocery list, watching what one child is doing while comforting another with a skinned knee. Let’s face it, a great deal of parenting (or teaching or other caregiving) is distracted parenting, and children are able to deal with that fact as long as there is some minimum level of undistracted, sensitive, responsive, attentiveness. This has been the case since our Paleolithic ancestors had to keep the kids from falling in the campfire while judging the distance from them of the tiger whose cough they can barely hear.

But: enter the cellphone and assorted screens, all of which may be more attention-getting for adults than all but the most loudly shrieking child. Has distracted parenting now reached epic proportions? Is this a problem? What could we, or should we, do about it?

It’s easy to see that distracted parenting can be a safety problem for preschoolers and even for younger or more risk-taking school-age children. Look at that distracting phone for a minute and while you do so, a child who is not yet street-wise runs after a ball and is hit by a car, or one who thinks she can help herself to lunch touches a hot burner on the stove. For children of all ages who need supervision in the bath, slips and falls are more likely (although there should be fewer bathtub drownings because parents with cellphones don’t need to leave the room to take a call).

For infants who are not yet mobile themselves, there may not be so many physical safety concerns connected with parent distraction by screens, but “technoference” (the interference of electronic devices with interactions between parent and infant or toddler) presents some very real potential risks for early development. Babies’ emotional and cognitive development (including language) follows a transactional pattern, involving a series of interactions between parent and child in which each partner is influenced by the other and the way each influences the other changes over time. The baby is an active partner and seeks parent responses as well as responding to parent communications like talking, pointing and facial expressions.

 Babies of 4 months or so respond with distress to a parent face that looks at them but also looks blank and fails to respond to smiles or other communications. The baby looks away, may begin to whimper, and acts more and more distressed. In addition, when the parent looks responsive again, it takes a little while for the baby to warm up and start to interact normally.   This “still-face” situation is one that can happen with any parent and baby from time to time as a parent is temporarily distracted by the demands of life. It is more likely to happen if a parent is depressed or disturbed by something that demands attention more effectively than the baby can manage, and when this is the case the interaction between the two gets less effective or enjoyable over time. When a parent responds to a screen often, even in the midst of an interaction with a baby who is trying to get a response, we can expect “still-face” effects to be multiplied. (And how puzzling it must be for a baby who is working on developing language to see that someone talks when no one else is there, appears to look in the baby’s direction, and yet talks and looks completely differently than at other times! This would seem to signal that those noises people make with their mouths have no real meaning after all.)

A recent article in the journal Child Development (McDaniel, B., & Radesky, J. [2018]. Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with childhood behavior problems. Vol. 89, pp. 100-109) reported a study that looked at parent distraction by screens and the associated behavior problems displayed by children. (Because of the study design, this work was not able to show whether “technoference” caused behavior problems or whether one or more other factors [like parent anxiety] caused both parent distraction and child behavior problems.) The authors reported other publications that have presented evidence that parents who use technology when with their children have fewer parent-child interactions, that they are less responsive to children’s bids for communication (and I should point out that sensitive and responsive parenting is well-known to be connected with good child development), and that parents even respond with hostility to child communications when they are attending to devices.  Looking at 183 families with young children, these authors concluded that parents who reported a high level of “technoference”  also reported more of both externalizing (angry acting-out, for example) and internalizing (depression or social withdrawal, for instance) problems in their children. Why this should be is not completely clear, and the authors speculated that  children of distracted parents may need to “act up” in order to get their parents’ attention—or alternatively that parents who are bored or depressed may turn to their screens to escape those uncomfortable feelings.

Most human beings find babies very attractive most of the time and respond with pleasure to young children’s efforts to interact. (We have probably evolved to have this kind of pleasurable responsiveness to the very young of our species.) These facts are what encourage most parents to do a good job caring for their children during the first few demanding and highly emotional years of the children’s lives.  Unfortunately, cellphones and other screen devices seem to be potentially even more attractive and attention-getting than our babies are. Although it isn’t clear what the eventual outcomes of “technoference” will be—and they are probably different for different families—the safest assumption seems to be that young children and parents' screens do not mix well for a wide range of reasons.

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