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Are You a Distracted Parent?

Why looking at your phone when the kids are around actually matters

Published on: November 15, 2018

Distracted parents

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As the parent of three school-aged kids, I try not to overuse my smartphone while they’re around. But sometimes I try to multitask, checking off electronic to-dos while I keep one eye on the kids at the park or in a doctor’s waiting room. 

I’m not the only one doing this type of “distracted parenting,” a new term for parental screen overuse around kids. Screen time controls for kids have been around for a decade; but these days, focus has shifted to parental distractions and their impact on kids. Take Apple’s 2018 update for its devices, which offers Do Not Disturb features and more control over notifications to help users dial back electronic distractions.

While I bristle at the implied admonishment — don’t we have enough to feel guilty about as parents? — I know distracted parenting is a modern reality and one that’s probably not great for kids.

Per Nielsen media research, adults in 2018 spend just over 11 hours per day interacting with media, mostly TV, game consoles, and yes, the ubiquitous smartphone. That’s arguably more time than we spend doing anything else, including work, sleep and parenting.  

One study linked parental distraction to an increased risk of playground injury for children (to be fair, the study found that smartphones were less distracting for parents than conversations with other adults). Another study found that parents who were “highly absorbed” in their smartphones were less patient and more likely to treat children harshly. 

Sometimes, distracted parenting can be truly dangerous. A new study reports that around half of parents use their phone while driving with children in the car; the same study linked using a smartphone while driving children to other risky behaviors like failing to wear a seat belt and drinking and driving.

That’s scary but what if you’d never dream of sending a text from behind the wheel or ignoring a dangerous playground stunt to watch a YouTube video. What’s the real harm in checking a few work emails while your child colors at the kitchen table? Is asking your (typically well-supervised) child to occasionally share your gaze with a smartphone really that bad?

It depends, says Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

“With screen time for parents or for kids, we look at what is being replaced by the screen,” says Dr. Christakis. “With distracted parenting, it can be that natural conversational volley between parents and children.” 

Simply put, when a parent is absorbed in a phone, he’s less likely to return a child’s conversational “serve,” so the child’s attempt to connect falls flat and a learning opportunity is missed. Phone, 1, kid, 0. 

When I see a family out to dinner together and everyone, including parents, is using a screen, it’s pretty clear what’s being replaced.

Parents’ electronic distractions are concerning because research shows that consistent responsiveness from caretakers is important to kids’ cognitive growth, particularly in early childhood. 

“Screens can come between a parent and that reflexive involvement with their child,” Dr. Christakis says. “I see this all the time in the community. When I see a family out to dinner together and everyone, including parents, is using a screen, it’s pretty clear what’s being replaced.”

Distracted parents aren’t intentionally hurting their kids, of course. But technology has advanced so rapidly that many families don’t have social norms for smartphones, notes Dr. Christakis: “Today’s parents didn’t have these devices growing up, so we haven’t yet mastered the social etiquette around them.” 

Dr. Christakis recommends reining in distracted parenting by establishing family ground rules around smartphones — for parents and for kids. “No phones at the dinner table is a good one,” he says. “In some families, phones get put in a basket or on a charger when everyone gets home in the evening, so that first hour is a time to reconnect without screens.” 

Parents also can use a growing array of apps designed to monitor and control their own screen time — ironically, using technology that limits the use of technology is a growing trend, says Dr. Christakis. 

I take this to mean that app developers (they’re parents too, right?) recognize the importance of undivided attention in an increasingly distracted world. We all know that some moments are too important to miss.  

Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Seattle Children's Hospital.

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