Before I sat down to write this, I asked my 4-and-8-year-old sons, “What words come comes to mind when I open up my laptop or take out my smartphone?”

My 8-year-old responded, “I guess she needs to check email.” Yep, true, I thought. I wish my day had less of that.  My 4-year-old responded, “Disappointing.”  I asked him to explain, and he showed me what I look like on my phone: he picked it up, looked at it, frowned, and sighed dramatically.  It was like he was holding up a mirror.

As a pediatrician, I have researched how mobile phone use affects family dynamics.  The parent-child relationship is central to children’s social and emotional health, resilience, and life success — yet I also see how more and more family interactions interrupted by mobile devices . . . including my own.

My interest in the topic began in 2010. I worked for a year as a pediatrician in the suburbs outside of Seattle. Many of the parents bringing in their sick kids worked at tech companies and were early adopters of mobile devices.  During my training, I had gotten used to children playing with handheld gaming devices, but this was different: parents texted during health-related conversations (were they really processing what I was saying?); looked up medical information online to check my accuracy (was this a sign of parent anxiety?); and used videos to stop children from crying (this was pretty helpful during ear exams, but is it OK other times, I wondered?).  

I was fascinated by the cultural change America was experiencing with the rapid adoption of mobile devices. But as a pediatrician, I had no idea what to do about it. So when I moved to Boston for training in Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics, I decided to explore the topic in more depth.

I started my research by observing families in fast food restaurants –  and the results were pretty eye-opening: when parents’ attention was highly absorbed in their smartphones, parents talked less to children; responded slower (or not at all) to child bids for attention; and sometimes overreacted to child behavior.

Our more recent studies show that in the long-run, parent technology use during parent-child activities leads to more difficult child behavior — which in turn leads to more parent technology usage. It’s a vicious cycle:  when kids stress us out, we often go to our phones for escape or to avoid interaction, and this interrupts time with kids or makes them annoyed, and they might react with difficult behavior, and so on.

As a working mom of two young boys, I knew how this child-phone multitasking felt to me, but I wanted to hear what others thought.  So I interviewed 35 parents from diverse backgrounds in Boston to understand their experiences. They told me they have never felt their brains split in so many directions –  like all the matters of the world could intrude upon home time and “land in their lap,” as one mom put it.

They expressed both relief and despair when their phones were broken or lost, because while this made it easier to “single-task” on their kids again, they also felt cut off from friends and information. The most interesting thing about these interviews, however, was how much parents appreciated the opportunity to vent and reflect on the role technology was playing in their family.  

My interviews with families made me realize we all need time to step back, look at our relationships with our devices, and think about why we do what we do — asking ourselves questions such as:

  • Am I sometimes using the phone as a stress reliever instead of taking a walk or deep breaths?  Do I use the smartphone as a way to withdraw from difficult family interactions?
  • What aspects of phone screen time stress me out the most or trigger insecurities? How does my phone use support the generous and social parts of myself?  
  • What types of relationships with devices am I modeling to my kids?   Am I teaching them that it’s okay to text and drive, or stare at phones while people try to talk to us?

This type of self-awareness is not easy, but it helps us grow as parents.  So try asking your kids about how they feel when you pull out your phone and see what your kids say.  

About Jenny Radesky, M.D.

Dr. Radesky is an Assistant Professor of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. She received her M.D. from Harvard Medical School, trained in pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and completed subspecialty training in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. Her research interests include use of mobile technology by parents and young children and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent-child interaction. Clinically, her work focuses on developmental and behavioral problems in low-income and underserved populations. She was lead author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.

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