‘The worst model of parenting imaginable’: Phones keep us physically present, emotionally removed

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 27 Jun 2018

Parents today spend more time with their kids than just about any parents in history, research shows, but far too much of that time is spent distracted by smartphones. (Dreamstime)

Erika Christakis has written a beautiful, troubling essay for The Atlantic that I hope every parent reads. 

“The Dangers of Distracted Parenting” sounds an alarm about the gradual decrease in the quality, if not the quantity, of the time we spend with our children, thanks to our godforsaken phones. 

On average, we spend more time with our kids than just about any parents in history, research shows, but far too much of that time is choppy and emotionally unpredictable – “governed”, Christakis writes, “by the beeps and enticements of smartphones.” 

“We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable – always present physically, thereby blocking children's autonomy," she writes, “yet only fitfully present emotionally.” 

We've built our lives, Christakis notes, around the premise that we can always be on. “Always working, always parenting, always available to their spouse and their own parents and anyone else who might need them, while also staying on top of the news, while also remembering, on the walk to the car, to order more toilet paper from Amazon.” 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell us something we don't know. 

Here's something we don't know: The subtle, but harmful, ways our tech habits may be changing the way parents and children – indeed, humans – have interacted since the beginning of time. 

“The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning,” Christakis writes. “We're in uncharted territory.” 

Child-development experts, she writes, have different names for the adult/child signalling system that builds the basic architecture of the brain: “serve and return”, “a conversational duet”. 

“A problem therefore arises when the emotionally resonant adult-child cueing system so essential to early learning is interrupted – by a text, for example, or a quick check-in on Instagram,” she writes. 

She quotes psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.” 

This is an alarm that I think we hear vaguely, constantly, in the background. There's always some signal that we're failing to build or honour reasonable tech boundaries for ourselves: the latest article, that parent glued to Instagram during the spring musical, the nagging voice in our head that reminds us of all the times we've been that parent. 

“My own adult children,” Christakis notes, “like to joke that they wouldn't have survived infancy if I'd had a smartphone in my clutches 25 years ago.” 

But her article mulls the consequences in a way that's so plainly, frankly heartbreaking, that I think it demands attention. 

“Smartphone use has been associated with a familiar sign of addiction,” Christakis writes. “Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention.” 

Which isn't to say we're never allowed to look away from our kids. “Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless,” she writes, “even healthy, for parent and child alike.” 

Not to mention necessary. Parents have to get stuff done. In generations past that meant children were left to play alone in playpens or, in the case of 19th century frontier parents, Christakis notes, on the open doors of ovens. (She cites an anecdote from Little House on the Prairie author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who recalls looking up from her chores one day to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over her toddler daughter's head.) 

“But that sort of separation,” Christakis writes, “is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her non-engagement that the child is less valuable than an e-mail.” 

Food for thought, as we embark on the next few months of school-free, homework-free – but not distraction-free – months of summer. — Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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