If there’s one thing enlightened modern parents are good at worrying about, it’s how much time our kids spend in front of screens: television, sure, but laptops too, and tablets and phones. As a former senior editor at Parenting magazine and Newsweek, I’ve done my share of hand-wringing over whether to forswear all screens until my daughters turned 2, as the American Academy of Pediatrics advises. Ha, as if.
Anyway, my girls are about to turn 6 and 9 now. And what I never worried enough about, it turns out, was how much my own media habits were affecting them. I’ve certainly had my concerns about how dependent I’ve become on my beloved iPhone, but surely the only person my compulsive thumb tapping was hurting was me, right?
Not so fast. In March Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, published a study in the journal Pediatrics with the high-calorie title “Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants.” Her takeaway: parents spend a lot of damn time in the company of their kids while on some level ignoring them.
Radesky and her team of researchers conducted an unscientific study in which they observed 55 family groups dining at fast food restaurants. Forty of the 55 included a parent who became engrossed in a mobile device during the meal. One of her researchers even saw a mother kick her child’s foot under the table when she tried to break mom’s attention away from her phone. Another little boy was swatted away for trying to lift his mom’s face away from the screen.
Those were extreme examples, but the overall vibe is worrisome. Our mobile devices, she points out in her study’s conclusion, can “distract parents from face-to-face interactions with their children, which are crucial for cognitive, language, and emotional development.”
But we’re all workaholics, right? We need to check that email and reply to this text ASAP, don’t we? “It’s a challenge,” Radesky tells me when I get her on the phone. “I’m a full-time working mom, trying to be an academic. It’s a tension so many parents describe to me.”
Radesky has instituted a ritual phone-free chunk of time in her own home. She leaves work early, at around 5, to spend time with her kids, ages 8 months and 4, before they go to bed. “I put the devices away and I don’t even look at them unless it’s something urgent,” she says. “My bosses understand we have an unplugged zone. Then between 7 and 8, I pick everything back up to check email — and ignore my husband.”
Our kids are no dummies. They see us engrossed in our toys and it can make them feel sad or annoyed and neglected. It can make them act out. Psychologist Catherin Steiner-Adair knows this all too well. For her book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” she interviewed 1,000 children between the ages of 4 and 18 about their parents’ use of these devices.
“What was really striking to me was the frequency with which kids said it’s so annoying. ‘Daddy says he’s going to play with me and he’s always on his computer’,” she tells me. “Children describe more poignantly at a younger age about parents’ absorption with cell phones when they’re, quote, ‘just checking’.”
And of course, children model their behavior on their parents. So we can hardly be surprised that the first thing our little digital natives reach for when they’re bored comes equipped with a screen.
With this in mind I decided to interview my own kids about my textual proclivities. Using a template modeled loosely on Steiner-Adair’s, I recorded our conversation on my phone — an irony that was not lost on them. Excerpts:
When we were growing up, we didn’t have cell phones.
We had phones attached to the wall. There were no phones in cars, no phones in restaurants, no screens at tables. What’s it like being a kid growing up with phones everywhere?
C, age 5: It feels boring. I think it’s kind of sad that you’re checking your phone all the time. And we really don’t get to play with you that much on weekends.
What about when I say, “oh I’m just checking?”
C: You check for a long time.
What does it make you feel when you’re trying to talk to me and I check my phone?
F, age 8: It makes me feel annoyed
C: It makes me feel bad because when you say, ‘go on, I’m listening,’ I think you’re not listening.
Do you feel like I check my phone too much?
I’m glad you told me that though it makes me sad.
So what can I do differently?
F: Check your emails and texts when we’re asleep.
What do you think of the rule about no phones at the dinner table or at restaurants for you guys?
F: It feels unfair. I know you don’t really want us to have phones at dinner table.
Why do you think that is?
F: Because it’s rude and you want to have a conversation with us. But it ends up with you checking your phone. I get really mad.
Will you remind me when I’m checking my phone too much and tell me if it makes you sad or mad?
C: Yeah. Can we hear the recording now?
The recording that I’m making on my phone right now?
F: As we speak!