Technology and Humanity//

Technoference in Parenting: Is Your Mobile Device Distracting You From Your Child?

Research suggests that the fewer technological interruptions, the better behaved your child will likely be over time.

Hero Images / Getty Images
Hero Images / Getty Images

Have you ever taken your child to the park and looked at the parents around you? What do you see?

If you’ve managed to look up from your own device, you’ve probably seen a lot of parents looking down at their devices. Indeed, observational research has found that 35 percent of parents spend about 1 in every 5 minutes of their time (or even more) on their phone while at the playground with their child.1 But really, what is the harm in that? I mean, the kids are safe and busy playing, right? Keep reading.

Now, most of us are really trying to be good parents, and parenting can be demanding, tiring, and even downright boring at times! And for those of you thinking, “Oh how could he say that?! Doesn’t he love his kids?” Yes, I do love my kids. I love them enough to watch the same TV show 500 times a week (ok, maybe slight exaggeration there), to spin around in circles over and over again while my kids hold onto my hands until I feel sick, to make them dinner while simultaneously saving the baby from climbing on the table every 30 seconds, to sweep and pick up the floor (I’m not sure why I do this, since the cereal will be back on the floor before I even get up in the morning), to…I think you get the picture.

We deserve some downtime, an escape, something more intellectually stimulating at times, and I know we’ve already seen the headlines such as “Parents, Wired to Distraction,” “How Technology Can Ruin Your Love Life,” and “The Phones We Love Too Much.” We feel guilty enough.

Yet, it’s important to consider how “technoference,” or minor everyday intrusions or interruptions of technology devices in our interactions with our family members, is impacting us as parents.2,3 Sadly, I don’t think we are always paying much attention to what is happening.

It’s so easy to do. Most of us have our phone with us all the time and rarely turn it off,4 and we use it for practically everything—it’s our clock, connection to work, connection to the web, social hub, map, doctor, teacher, and can even listen to and talk with us. (“Ok Google…how do I write an engaging article about phones?” “Hi Brandon, let me search the web for you…).”

Indeed, we use our phones and other devices so much that many of us would feel anxious if we had to disconnect or if we—Heaven forbid!—forgot our phone at home.5 Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?

Scenario 1: Your phone vibrates while you are playing with your child. You check it. Nope, no important message, but you end up on Facebook, then Instagram. About 10 minutes later, you look up, and your child has wandered off to play by herself.

Scenario 2: “Mom, mom, mom, mom, can I have a snack?” your child asks [repeat for two minutes, growing more intense over time]. The child then touches your phone, and you look up. “What?” you ask in an irritated tone.

Scenario 3: “Time to brush your teeth!” The kids run into the bathroom giggling and pushing each other. You hear the water turn on, so you’re satisfied they are probably brushing their teeth; you pull out your phone to check it. An email just came in from a friend, so you read it. When you finish, the kids are already out of the bathroom, the sink is a mess, and they’re running around in the family room. You scold them for making a mess and ask if they really brushed their teeth (as you feel the dry toothbrushes).

I would say that these sorts of occurrences are becoming increasingly common. In one of our recent studies, 65 percent of mothers stated that technology devices interrupted their interactions with their child during playtime sometimes or more often, and 22 percent said this happened at least sometimes even during disciplining their child.

Of course, parents have had tons of things distracting them for ages, so what’s the big deal? Well, smartphones and mobile devices have been designed to absorb your attention. They are better at keeping and rewarding you for your continued attention than most other distractions. Thus, some researchers have found parents distracted by phones (as opposed to other types of distractions) are less likely to respond to a child’s attempts to get their attention. Distraction with a device could potentially influence every aspect of parenting quality, leading you to be less in sync with your child’s cues, to misinterpret your child’s needs, to respond more harshly than usual, and to respond much too long after the need arose.

In a sense, these often little distractions (that as we saw in the earlier scenarios can sometimes turn into longer ones) can alter parenting sensitivity and quality. As a parenting researcher, I often look for whether parents are interpreting their child’s cues and needs correctly and then responding appropriately and in a timely manner. Distraction with a device could potentially influence every aspect of parenting quality, leading you to be less in sync with your child’s cues, to misinterpret your child’s needs, to respond more harshly than usual, and to respond much too long after the need arose. These are all components of parenting sensitivity, which are connected to the type of attachment (or emotional bond) a child forms with his or her parent. Children then go through life with an internal working model of what relationships should be like in terms of how they have been treated by their own parents or caregivers. In other words, these distractions could have very real meaning for how the rising generation begins to see the world around them and what it means to love and be loved.

My coauthor, Jenny Radesky, and I recently examined whether technoference in parent-child time was linked with child behavioral problems (see study in Child Development here). We asked a sample of 170 U.S. couples with young children about their mobile device use behavior, how often technoference happened during time with their child,and their child’s behavior.

Overall, we found that parents with problems managing their mobile device use were more likely to experience technoference during time with their child, and this technoference in the parent-child relationship was linked with more child internalizing (e.g., anxiety, depression) and externalizing (e.g., hyperactivity, disruptive behavior) problems. These links persisted even when taking into account factors like parents’ stress and depression levels. In brief, these findings suggest that parent technology use and child behavior are intricately connected, and also add to previous work, showing associations between technoference and potential relationship problems in couples and parenting.

Although it’s not clear yet whether parents are responding to difficult child behavior by using mobile devices more around the child, or whether the mobile device use leads to more child behavior problems (in reality, it is likely both), this study is the first to show links between parent technology use, technoference, and child behavior. Parents should critically examine their device use and seek to minimize distractions and time spent on technology while interacting with young children, as our new study suggests that even minor, everyday interruptions in parent-child interactions—even in fairly high functioning families—are intricately linked with child behavior.6

What Can Parents Do to Avoid Technoference?

1. Be mindful of your phone and other technology use. Most of us don’t even realize how much we are using our devices. There are apps we can download that will track our use and let us know how we are doing. This can be really eye opening! For instance, you might notice that you are most tempted to look at your device during certain times of the day and so forth.

2. Develop strategies to keep yourself “present” with your children. You can get creative with these, but I might suggest at least coming up with some technology free zones and/or times in your home. You can also set a goal for yourself to put your phone down or look up from your tablet/computer immediately when your child or other family member walks into the room—in a sense, you want to show them that they are the most important thing to you at that moment.

3. Try to ask yourself the following question every time you pull your phone out while with your children: Can this wait until later? If the answer is yes, then practice re-engaging with your child instead of pulling out the device. Our research suggests that the fewer technological interruptions, the better behaved your child will likely be over time. Also, as you actively re-engage with your child, this will help to create a new habit to replace your old phone habit.

4. If you are married or have a romantic partner, make sure you are on the same page. Our research has linked technoference with lower relationship and co-parenting quality, and the quality of your relationship will inevitably spill out into your parenting relationship with your children. Work together as a team as much as you can, and start out from a place of love. You love one another and want to do better, although realize you may have different opinions, so be sensitive and take the time to really listen to your partner’s ideas too as you create your technology strategies.

5. Finally, please don’t beat yourself up over this! Let’s just work on being a little better each day.

You may also like: 

Our Kids Are Asking For Technology That Enhances Their Well-Being

How to Talk to Your Kids About Difficult Subjects

Brandon T. McDaniel, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University. His research tends to focus on family relationships and influences on the well-being of these family relationships, and he teaches classes on parenting and child development. Click here to see more about his research.

1. Hiniker, A., Sobel, K., Suh, H., Sung, Y. C., Lee, C. P., & Kientz, J. A. (2015, April). Texting while parenting: How adults use mobile phones while caring for children at the playground. In Proceedings of the 33rd annual ACM conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 727-736).

2. McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). “Technoference”: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women’s personal and relational well-being. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 85-98.

3. McDaniel, B. T., & Coyne, S. M. (2016). Technology interference in the parenting of young children: Implications for mothers’ perceptions of coparenting. The Social Science Journal, 53(4), 435-44

4. Rainie, L., & Zickuhr, K. (2015). Americans’ views on mobile etiquette. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/08/2015-08-26_mobile-etiquette_FINAL.pdf

5. Bianchi, A., & Phillips J. (2005). Psychological predictors of problem mobile phone use. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8, 39-51.

6. McDaniel, B. T., & Radesky, J. S. (2017). Technoference: Parent Distraction With Technology and Associations With Child Behavior Problems. Child Development.

Originally published at ifstudies.org

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