A recent survey by Highlights magazine for children reveals 62 percent of kids say that their parents are distracted when they try to communicate with them. The number one cause of that distraction? Technology, of course. Laptops, computers, and cellphones together account for over half of the distractions about which kids complained.
The Long-Term Consequences of Distracted Parenting
If you’re thinking to yourself that glancing at your phone while your kids play is a no harm, no foul kind of habit, scientists are beginning to respectfully disagree. A recent study of rat parenting — yes, that’s a thing — showed when the rat mothers were stressed at the time their baby rats needed attention, they predictably ignored them.
Instead of developing normally, the baby rats grew up to act very differently, presumably because they weren’t getting positive, consistent signals from their rat parents as their brains developed. Though it’s clear rats and people aren’t exactly the same, the researchers theorize that any baby that doesn’t get consistent attentions from a parent during critical times of brain development might be more susceptible to depression and other disorders later in life.
They never learned to get what they need from caregivers who didn’t respond consistently, presumably because they were playing Angry Birds instead. The researchers intend to follow up by observing humans.
The Short-Term Effects of Technology on Parenting
In the meantime, it’s easy to do some anecdotal observations of how those cell phones and computers have changed the way parents interact with their children. Now that over 70 percent of Americans are texting throughout the day, all you need to do is take a good look around in any social situation to see how that’s impacting parenting:
- Discipline is lax. Instead of monitoring children’s behavior, say, in the grocery store, a busy dad trying to answer emails and pick up dinner at the same time will likely not notice his kids bruising every banana in the bin. The consequence? Kids don’t learn when something is socially unacceptable, and bad behavior continues as if it were normal.
- There’s more yelling. As a result of parents not noticing their kids’ minor crimes and misdemeanors, they’re more likely to blow up when things escalate.
For example, if that dad had nipped the banana defamation in the bud early, he wouldn’t have to blow up at his kids when they upend the entire produce stand and cause even worse damage. Ignoring the little things and then suddenly laying down the law is confusing to kids trying to figure out right from wrong, and your anger feels arbitrary rather than justified.
- You pass on the cellphone habit. When you use your phone while your kids are trying to tell you something, you are modeling this behavior and teaching them it’s okay to ignore someone in favor of the phone. This sets them up for all sorts of relationship snafus in the future, when everyone from teachers and classmates to future spouses will expect undivided attention at some point.
How to Conquer the Cell Phone and Focus on the Kids
The obvious answer here is simple: turn off the phone; but with so many people working a few hours a week from home, at least, and more bosses than ever before expecting answers to email on personal time, it’s not always feasible. Still, you can definitely cut back on your addiction.
Try these tips to make sure the kids aren’t competing with technology for attention:
- Use laptops in a designated area only. A home office — or at least a desk in a quiet corner — is ideal. When you keep laptops from following you around the house, you’ll use them less for entertainment and more just to get essential work done. It also sets a good example that a computer is a tool, not a toy.
- Remove social media apps from your phone. The most distracting thing on your cell phone is all the pings and beeps from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you get rid of these apps, you won’t be tempted to look at your phone every time you have a moment of boredom, and you’ll be more available to answer all those burning “why?” questions from curious kids.
- Schedule email time. Limit time checking work email to a designated period when you’re at home, and stick with it. You’ll be much happier if you’re not always “on,” and many people have success making this a personal policy if they band together to make it an office-wide one. Something as simple as declaring “no email after 7 p.m.” can work wonders.
- Turn phones off for the dinner hour. Bring back family dinner night by leaving your phone somewhere you can’t see or hear from the dinner table, and enjoy food and conversation with your family instead. Even if it doesn’t take you an hour to eat, a dinnertime moratorium can stretch into a post-supper walk or story time.
Putting these new, healthier habits in place will eventually replace the old habit of spending quality spending time attached to the phone. Instead, you’ll build stronger connections with your kids while putting an end to distracted parenting.
Contributed by Jennifer Landis: Jennifer is a writer, blogger, foodie, yogi, runner, and mama. She loves drinking tea, deadlifts, and dark chocolate. You can find more from Jennifer at her blog, Mindfulness Mama, or on Twitter @JenniferELandis.