Parental distraction with iPhones…This is the post you were never going to see. It’s the post that has been brewing for weeks. It’s been drafted, tweaked and re-written and then…shelved. I have resisted the urge to press ‘publish’. Why?
I know that it’s a controversial topic. I’m aware that this post will most likely open up a can of worms. And I’m okay with that (I think). I also know that in order for this to be an authentic post, that I really need to confess something (which I will do towards the end of this post).
It was a recent event at the local park that made me realise that I needed to publish this post. As uneasy as it may make some of us feel (myself included) parental distraction with iPhones is a real problem. Even if this post just makes you stop and think for a moment and contemplate how you use your phone…
Now before I begin, I’m not professing to being a ‘perfect’ parent. I certainly don’t have this parenting thing sorted out. Far from it in fact. I have moments (lots in fact) where I question what I’m doing. And wonder if I’m doing a good enough job.
But as a mum and a children’s technology researcher, I feel compelled to share this post. Yes, it might bring up some icky feelings, but that’s a sign that perhaps there’s a lesson here for us. Something for us to consider.
So deep breath…here it comes.
I was with my boys at the local park the other day. It was a typical ‘park day’. Frenetic energy as children climbed up and down the equipment. And up and down again. Squeals and laughter ensuing. Mums holding cups of coffee in their hands and giving each other ‘that’ nod, that only sleep-deprived parents can give. Grandparents proudly watching on as children negotiated equipment. A few dads chasing their kids.
Nothing out of the ordinary really. Until I saw something that concerned me. It disturbed me on so many levels. And I thought about this event for days after I witnessed it.
A 4-year old girl (she had proudly declared she was 4 earlier in a heated discussion about who was the oldest in the sandpit) was attempting to amble up the rope-climbing frame. She had almost made it to the top. Independently. And when she finally did, her excitement was palpable. She was thrilled.
“Muuuum!” she shrieked. “I did it. I did it! I got all the way to the top.”
But her mum did not reply. So she screamed a little louder, “Mumm! I got to the top!”
Still no response.
The little girl looked longingly at her mum, who was sitting near me on an adjacent bench. I glanced over to see her mum smiling… But not at her daughter. She was hunched over with her iPhone clenched in her hand.
“Just one sec, honey. I just need to post this picture…”
The little girl looked at her mum. A despondent look descended on her face. Her eyes looked down and her shoulders slumped. Her whole demeanor changed. She was no longer the confident and proud little girl that she had been moments earlier.
And then, I think, she realised how far up she had climbed and began to panic. She started to try to climb down frantically and started to cry. Her footing became unstable and she wobbled and almost fell.
She didn’t fall, but came very close.
As I watched this event unfold (I was sitting on the adjacent bench feeding my baby) I was absolutely flabbergasted. For two reasons.
1. Most importantly, this mum had missed a very important moment with her daughter, in favour of her iPhone. She was so mesmerised by her iPhone that she didn’t witness her daughter’s achievement. Now I am not saying that parents have to witness every success of their children. That is not feasible (nor desirable- we know that today’s children are becoming highly contingent upon praise and reward). [Some of you may be wondering- was the mum posting pictures of her daughter at the park? I don’t think so, as she had been glued to her phone for the entire time her daughter used the climbing-frame.]
But observing this experience really made me think. And in doing so, it brought up some un-easy feelings.
Just how many moments are we missing, as parents, when we are glued to our devices?
What messages are we sending to our children when we cannot break our technology preoccupation to watch them in the park (or in the backyard, or at swimming lessons)? And delight in their accomplishments, however, big or small.
When we choose to dedicate our attention to our devices instead of our children, we are sending a very powerful message to them: the device is more important than them (even if this is not necessarily true).
2. My second concern, relates to the little girl’s injury risk because her mum was not actively supervising her. Again, I acknowledge that park accidents happen and even the most vigilant of parents (we all know the ‘helicopter parents’) can experience park accidents. However, this experience that I witnessed made me realise that parental preoccupation with phones could be causing child safety concerns.
Now when I dived into the research (I know, I know, I love a good bit of research), I found that we don’t yet have any published data to conclude that parental screen-use is causing children’s increased injury rates. Yet.
However, there is some anecdotal evidence from doctors and hospitals that children’s injury rates have been increasing. And some reports suggest that parental distraction with iPhones may be a causal factor for increased childhood injuries. [Note, I did not say that we have conclusive evidence. There may be a host of reasons as to why children’s injury levels have increased in recent years. Increased sedentary behavior may be a leading reason.] But I think that this is a significant concern.
As parents are we too preoccupied with our devices? [Wow- lots of icky and uncomfortable feelings around this question.]
Now, in my quest for research I did find an ethnographic study that has recently been published in the Pediatrics journal that explored how parents use mobile devices around their children. The study “observed 55 caregivers eating with 1 or more young children in fast food restaurants in a single metropolitan area. Observers wrote detailed field notes, continuously describing all aspects of mobile device use and child and caregiver behavior during the meal.”
The study found that of the 55 parents observed 40 of them used a mobile device during the meal time. The study’s authors said, “They looked at it, scrolled on it and typed for most of the meal, only putting it down intermittently.”
Now it’s important to note that this was not a scientific study. We have to be careful what conclusions we draw from such a small-scale study. But the findings suggest that parental absorption with phones impacted on children’s behaviour. The children whose parents who were most absorbed in their devices were more likely to act out, in an effort to get their parents’ attention. Other children appeared to accept the lack of engagement and entertained themselves. It was a small-scale ethnographic study, but the findings warrant further investigation. And I think they should also make us pause, as parents, and think carefully about our device habits.
Now before I have people asking, I am going to declare, that yes, I use my phone at the park from time-to-time. Guilty.
I have taken calls when my eldest son was going up and down the slippery dip (and up and down and up and down). I am also guilty of taking pictures of him doing something outlandishly adorable and sending it to my husband (or his grandparents) when he’s at the park. I have quickly snuck in a quick Facebook check when I finally got to sit down at the park bench (only to then have to stand up and empty out sand from shoes).
But I really try to limit my phone-use when I am around my children. It isn’t easy. And it is VERY tempting to grab my phone and have a quick look at Instagram or reply to my overflowing email inbox. But I do try (and am trying a lot more recently) to avoid using my phone around my children.
Now For a Confession…
With a (very hungry) six-month old baby I spend A LOT of time feeding each day. In fact, I added it up recently when I was frustrated that I couldn’t make progress on my ‘To Do List’ each day. I discovered that I am spending close to 4 hours each day feeding. That’s a lot of time, in anyone’s books! I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way. But…
Sometimes, I have spent that precious time with my smartphone in my hand, as well as my son. Replying to emails. Checking Facebook. Sending a quick tweet. Replying to an SMS (my friends know I am terrible at responding quickly to SMS). Checking Instagram.
When my son swiped at my phone the other day when I was feeding him and knocked it out of my hand (thank goodness not onto him), it made me realise just how often I was using my iPhone. I had slipped into a bad habit of using my phone most, (but not all) of his feeds.
And this is not okay (for me, anyway). I know how vital real face-time is for brain development. I know that my baby needs serve-and-return interactions with me. He doesn’t need to be constantly starting at my screen-illuminated face when I am feeding him. He needs my full attention (well most of the time anyway).
Now I’m not perfect and I don’t profess to be (and I don’t strive to be either). So I’m not saying that you should never use your iPhone around your children.
This is 2014 and that is probably not a realistic or practical pursuit.
But what I am saying is that we need to think carefully about how often and how much we use our gadgets around our children. They are observing and inheriting our digital habits (don’t they always seem to emulate our absolute worst habits…or your partners. It’s always Daddy’s bad habits in this house! Heee heee!)
Could we dedicate specific times and/or places when we won’t use devices? For example, beach-time is technology-free time and the dinner table is also a phone-free zone for our family.
There is no denying that technology is here to stay. Banning it or avoiding it is not really an option. Instead, we need to look for healthy and appropriate ways to use these technologies.
As digital parents, we are the first generation who are raising children in a completely digital world. And it’s confusing. And it’s overwhelming at times.
Our job, as parents, is totally different to previous generations of parents. So we need to come up with our own healthy habits too, when it comes to using technology around our children.
So please, consider putting down your phone when you are with your children…at least some of the time.
So…tell me what you think in the comments below. Are you aware of how your screen-time is impacting on your children? Did this post bring up any icky feelings?