When you spend time with your children, eating, playing, helping with homework, completing household chores, or just having a conversation--do you ever stop and look at your smartphone? If you do, you might want to stop.
That finding comes from a recent study of 170 two-parent households, where both parents filled out surveys about their daily interactions with their kids. Researchers found a connection between parents who stopped to interact with devices such as phones, tablets, or laptops during time with their children and those children's behavioral problems, including hyperactivity, whining, and tantrums. Disturbingly, they found that "technoference" had a negative effect, even if parents only occasionally pulled out their devices, for instance to respond to a text or listen to a voice-mail message.
If never checking your phone while you're with your child seems unthinkable to you, you have lots of company. In the survey, 48 percent of parents said they interrupt their parenting time to use a digital device at least three times a day, with 24 percent saying they did so twice a day, and 17 percent saying it happened only once a day. Only 11 percent of parents said they never interrupt time with a child to use a mobile device.
It's worth noting that 170 families isn't a huge sample, and that researchers asked parents to report on their own and their children's behavior, rather than observing that behavior, which would have produced more reliable results as to what parents and children actually do. It's also true that the study doesn't separate cause from effect--it could be that parents turn to their mobile devices because children are behaving badly, rather than the other way around. So as the researchers themselves admit, more study is needed.
Nevertheless, this is part of a growing body of evidence that using digital devices isn't good for the parent-child relationship. Also, it makes sense. "We know that parents' responsiveness to their kids changes when they are using mobile technology, and that their device use may be associated with less-than-ideal interactions with their children," Jenny Radesky, MD, a child behavior expert and senior author of the study, told Science Daily. "It's really difficult to toggle attention between all of the important and attention-grabbing information contained in these devices, with social and emotional information from our children, and process them both effectively at the same time."
So while waiting for a more definitive study, you should probably consider strategies to create some technoference-free time with your kids. Here's are a few ideas to get you started:
1. Stack your phone.
This will work if there is at least one other adult around also interacting with your children or child--or you may want to do it with the children themselves. It works like this: In Silicon Valley, so many people spend so much time on devices when they should be socializing that a practice called "phone stacking" became popular when groups of people were out to dinner. At the start of the meal, everyone puts his or her devices in a pile in the center of the table. The first person to pick one up also has to pick up the tab.
It's easy to see how this could be adapted at home. For instance, the first parent to pick up his or her phone has to do the dishes or read the bedtime story. If your children have their own devices, you could reward them for putting them down for a while with something each child wants.
2. Plan a tech timeout.
This could be during mealtimes, or during a set time on Sundays, or whenever makes sense for your and your family's schedule. Let people know ahead of time that during dinner time every evening, or before noon on weekends, or whatever time, you will not be able to answer texts, phone calls, or urgent messages of any kind. (If you're concerned about being reachable during a true emergency--say you're a cardiac surgeon--consider using a pager or landline or some other device that can't receive texts or connect you to Facebook.) Taking a tech timeout will not only help your children, it has proven benefits for you too.
3. Get out in nature.
Spending some time away from computers, televisions, and other technology in the woods or the desert or by the ocean is extremely good for your physical and emotional health and that of your children as well. It's so good for you that in Japan, the health effects of "forest baths" in different locations are measured and the best are actually covered by health insurance. You don't need to travel to the Grand Canyon; spending some time in a local park can work too. Just remember: If you want to take pictures, bring a camera. Or at least put your phone in airplane mode.