Thursday, January 03, 2013

Is Portable Technology Robbing Kids of Parents’ Attention?

What happens to a whole generation of young children who must compete for their parents’ attention against intelligent devices, the Internet, social networks, and plain old-fashioned telephone conversations?

Published: 11/17/2011
by Robert Moskowitz
Have you noticed how many moms and dads these days – whether pushing strollers, wearing their babies, leading toddlers by the hand or letting them run free – are more intensely focused on a smart phone than on their child?

This is totally new.

When I was growing up, and later when I was raising my kids, mothers (and some dads) talked to their babies literally all the time: chattering away about what was going on, pointing out interesting sights and sounds, planning for when Brother or Sister came home from school, asking questions as if the child understood and might actually answer.

Psychologists make much of this intense verbal stimulation, eye contact and social interaction, explaining that they help develop new neural pathways in the child’s brain and encourage higher levels of awareness, cogitation, and language capabilities, just for starters.

So what happens to a whole generation of young children who must now compete for their parents’ attention against intelligent devices, the Internet, social networks, and plain old-fashioned telephone conversations?

No one knows, at least not according to Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., a Fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara and co-founder of the National ParentNet Association, a nonprofit that builds family, school and community partnerships.

“It’s just too new of a phenomenon for there to be any research on it,” she says. “However, there is a lot of research that shows the benefit of active listening with children, and how parent attention and support is key to developing a healthy self-image. One could surmise that if we are paying attention to our smart-phones instead of our children, not as much interaction is going to occur.”

And who among us hasn’t witnessed the toddler who grabs Mom’s smart-phone and starts punching buttons? Children as young as 1 or 2 already see them as fascinating toys. “This seems to be yet another distraction from face-to-face interaction with parents,” says Price-Mitchell.

“It’s definitely an example of multitasking in which attention to a face-to-face human being is sacrificed for attention to virtual human beings,” agrees Patricia Greenfield, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at UCLA and director of the Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, where she studies children’s interaction with the newer forms of digital media.

James W. Stigler, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, agrees about the lack of available research, but takes a less pessimistic view of the situation. “I have not heard of any research on this,” he confides, “but I don’t know if it’s necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes peer interactions are more productive [than interactions with parents], and this [parental smart-phone fixation] might free children up to interact more with peers.”

Rebekah Richert, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at UC Riverside, says the effects of parents’ increased use of these technologies are difficult to anticipate, but likely fall into two categories.

 “First, children are monitored less. We know that we cannot attend to two or more things as well as we can attend to one. Thus, when parents are glancing between their phone and their child, they are likely missing subtle, or even obvious, cues about what the child is doing and experiencing,” says Richert. “This can be both positive and negative.” She echoes Stigler’s view that less attention from parents could mean more interaction with peers and an increased sense of independence, but points out the increased risk of injury or social conflict for children whose parents are distracted.

 “Second,” Richert says, “children learn about technologies by watching their parents. Children are growing up in environments surrounded by these kinds of personal, portable, interactive devices.” Children of high-use parents who are on smart phones or tablets throughout the day will learn about their appropriate – or inappropriate – use, depending on their parents’ example. “It is up to each parent to decide how he or she wants his or her child to view and use these kinds of technologies in their lives,” says Richert.

Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, believes ignoring kids for smart-phones can be very bad. “Smart phones are not really very smart,” says Lieberman, a member of the faculty at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute who accuses the devices of robbing kids of parents’ attention and “tearing apart the fabric of the family. The impact on children of a parent who seems to find a little box more intriguing than them is powerful. This makes children feel devalued, unimportant, unattractive and unloved.” She goes so far as to say that this lack of attention creates a void in children’s lives that can lead to substance abuse and other problems.

Gabor Maté, M.D., a Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction, believes that today’s parents are stressed and have become disconnected from their kids, and that parents who can’t put down their smart phones may actually be addicted to them.

“It’s a concern I have as well,” says Lisa Druxman, founder of StrollerStrides, a fitness program where moms exercise with their babies. “As a mom myself, I get how hard it is to ‘unplug.’ We recommend that moms put their phones away and actually play with the kids. Don’t just sit on the sidelines. Enjoy the playground or a game of tag! Think about how you want your kids to treat their own kids one day. I’m guessing we would all put the phones away and play!”

At least one educator is also dismayed by the trend. “I think it’s very disengaged,” says the co-director of a popular, upscale Los Angeles preschool. “We frequently see parents come into our school and, instead of greeting their child and focusing in on them, they’re talking on the phone.

“Today’s young children have never been with parents without phones,” continues the educator, who didn’t want to be identified so as not to offend parents of students attending her school. “They don’t know any different. But talking is more than a way of communicating and building language skills. It’s a way of having a relationship with your kids and attending to their needs. It’s unrealistic to expect people not to use their smart phones. They’re part of our lives and our world, and they serve some very useful purposes. But there are downsides. I think it would be good if parents could realize the impact of technology, be more mindful, and think about how they want smart-phones in their lives.”

Mindfulness is just the strategy suggested by developmental psychologist Nancy Buck, Ph.D. and parenting coach. “My general position,” says Buck, “is that parenting must be conscious. That is, just be aware of what you’re doing. Then you can decide if what you’re doing is what you want to be doing. If it isn’t, you can make a different choice.”

Robert Moskowitz is an L.A. dad, writer, and frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.

I agree with Nancy Buck, parenting must be conscious. This is why I believe that informing parents is important. Sharing experiences is important too. I do not like cell phone because I feel it invade my space. I do not like to feel "on call". Honestly, most of the calls I am getting are not that urgent, they can at least wait a few minutes. The only calls I would answer right away would be from school or other place where my children would be, in case something happen to them or they need me. I have a cell phone for emergency use and I have a smartphone, even two and I gave them to my kids :-)
They use them as Ipod. I do not want those to be connected at home, as I am first teaching them not to become addicted to them. If they need to surf the web or do email, they have a computer. It is really hard to supervise the use of a smartphone or other small device connected to the internet. But when they turn their computer on, I can see it. Like everything, I believe that they need to learn first how to master the use of all those technology and by mastering it I mean being able to control it in every way. And it is easiest to say than to do, as mention in Robert Moskowitz, many adult are addicted to their smartphone...

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