New Study Reveals the Cost of Parenting While Texting

“The intervention came one night during dinner,” a friend recently told me, “when my four-year-old son pleaded, ‘Dad, would you please put that away? I’m trying to talk to you.’” He hesitated before adding, “I knew my cell phone use was out of control because the next night I snuck into the bathroom during dinner to check my messages so he wouldn’t see me.”

Smart phones have put the power of computers and access to the Internet in the palms of our hands. The convenience, access to information, and the connection to others have made these devices ubiquitous. They’ve also made their lure irresistible. Who among us has not responded to a text during a meeting or checked email during a meal?

Paying partial attention to parenting

While many of us parents worry about how attached our kids have become to their cell phones we would do well to pay attention to how attached we are to our own.

Scientists in Boston recently observed fifty-five adult-child pairs eating in fast food restaurants. Forty of the fifty-five adults were using cell phones as they shared meals with the children. (They had no way of knowing if all the adults were the actual parents.) They described the amount of time spent using the phones during the meal as the “absorption rate.” It ranged from intermittent use to constant talking, texting, or surfing.

Not surprisingly, the adults who paid more attention to their cell phones had less interaction with the children. Sadly, the children being ignored began to behave in ways to get attention. It was as if the kids were repeating my friend’s four-year-old’s plea, “Please put that away. I’m trying to talk to you.” Even more sadly, most of the interaction between the high cell ph0ne using adults and the children was to correct their behavior. “Please stop doing that.”

Taking time to connect

I was sharing the results of this study with a veteran parent educator who told me that she had recently led a discussion with parents about cell phone use. She asked them to write down and share how they thought their children would describe their relationship with their cell phones.

A young mother recounted how her five-year-old son had raced into the laundry room where she was putting clothes into the washing machine holding her cell phone in his hand. “Mommy,” he blurted, “I brought you your phone. You left it upstairs.” She realized at that moment that in her son’s eyes she always had to have it with her.

It isn't that 21st century parents should never use their phones with their children or pay constant attention to them. Instead, it is our patterns and habits that we need to pay attention to. How can we make sure that the very technology that can connect us doesn’t end up doing the opposite? Here are some tips.

  • Put cell phones away during meals.
  • Choose times when you are especially mindful about listening to and actively engaging with your children free of screens- consider daily car rides, pick-ups, bath time, bed time, and mornings as prime time to connect.
  • Pay attention to how much, when and where you use your cell phone. What are the patterns? How would your child describe them?
  • If your cell phone is too irresistible, put it out of reach. For example, leave it locked in the glove compartment when you take your kids to the playground.
  • If you want to use your phone to connect, do so deliberately and involve your child. For example, Skyping Grandma or Grandpa.