Parents, Drop the Phone When Interacting with Your Kids

Spending more time staring at a screen than gazing at your child is a problem.

Posted Jul 02, 2019

We hear a lot about the role of technology in the erosion of human connection and the rise of social isolation. The irony of social media is that it makes our “virtual selves” available for engagement 24/7, but our devotion to the medium can leave some people in “real life isolation” 24/7 as well. Not only that, but the behavior of "technology-immersed" parents can limit the amount of parent-child interaction that occurs as well. These kids are likely to be less socially skilled, too.

Loneliness and Isolation Are Heath Risks

Loneliness is a function of emotional need and reflects the absence of connection, not the absence of people. That’s why we can feel lonely even if we’re in a crowd. In fact, being in the middle of a crowd can make us feel especially lonely in two particular instances. First, if you are surrounded by a crowd of people you don’t know and you’re not a fan of mingling, you can definitely experience extreme loneliness if you’re longing for connection, not just commotion.

Secondly, you can feel lonely if you’re hanging out with a group of friends or family and everyone is more focused on their smartphones than they are on face-to-face interaction with each other. Indeed, a huge cause of “alone in the crowd” loneliness is the amount of “screen time immersion” that everyone around us is experiencing.

Sometimes, the loneliest moment at a family celebration or gathering of friends can be when everyone is intently “checking their phones” even though they have gone to the effort of assembling together to celebrate a special event . . . maybe even a birthday, an anniversary, or even a birth.

Loneliness can be a function of social isolation. When we don’t have opportunities to engage in social interactions with others, the isolation experienced can leave us feeling lonely. Once upon a time, children who were lonely had to leave their rooms and seek out siblings to tease, parents to annoy, or neighborhood kids for play. Phones weren’t found in everyone’s pockets and computers were not good for much of anything beyond homework writing assignments and basic video games.

In recent years, not only have phones gotten “smarter” than the people who use them, but they have also decreased our “social smarts,” too. For the children of the “first gen internet users,” the power to engage their parents in any kind of purposeful or playful spontaneous interaction began to shrink as their parents’ screen time increased. Kids were given strict rules about when and where they could travel along the world wide web, but often the availability of the home computer was co-opted by parents who were as enamored by its powers to connect to people around the globe as their kids were.

Did We Raise #GenerationLonely?

Who’s lonely? While most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives – and some of us more so than others – researchers have revealed that young adults are lonelier than midlife and older adults (Chald & Lawton, 2017). Young people who hit puberty with phones in their hands not only missed out on some of the routine social interactions due to “cell phone distraction,” but they also grew up with parents who were pushing strollers, swings, and Pinterest-inspired snacks with cell phones in their hands!

The babies and toddlers who had V-Tech and Leapfrog electronics in their hands were likely reflecting their parents’ obsession with technology. If the kids were entertained by pushing buttons, it left more time for caregivers to push buttons on their own devices. Reed, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff (2017) found that cell phone interruptions negatively affected children's learning success when learning sessions with parents were interrupted by a cell phone call – even if the material covered was the same as the amount covered when there was no distraction.

While no one’s arguing for trying to turn back technology’s forward momentum, perhaps there needs to be more attention paid to the social needs of everyone from youth to older adulthood. Part of the reasons, perhaps, that young people today experience loneliness to the extent that they do – even though technology connects them 24/7 – is that they are the first generation to have “lost their parents” or other significant adult figures to technology’s pull.

As a counselor, I was surprised at the overwhelming pull of the internet as email and message boards first took hold. Most new mothers learned early on that if you stayed too long on the phone, young kids would have time enough to get into trouble – sneaking snacks, watching television shows they weren’t supposed to, teasing their siblings, and so on. Phone calls couldn’t go on for hours, anyway, because the person on the other end of the line would need to get off the phone, too.

However, the online pull of technology is too much for many adults to resist. Chat rooms, discussion forums, shopping sites, online gaming, social networking sites, and even Pinterest can suck in people and steal hours from their lives. If a child needs a parent, who happens to be “checking his phone” or sitting at the computer, the child might as well be alone even when they’re in the same room with their parent. 

The lack of availability of parents and adults is likely a significant cause of the loneliness experienced by young adults and Millennials today. Many didn’t experience the same level of one-on-one time from their parents as earlier generations often did. Young adults learn to rely on technology to keep in touch with their friends round-the-clock rather than learning how to really communicate and converse face-to-face or even on the phone. We’ve dropped a lot of letters from a lot of words in texting, but we’ve also dropped a lot of the comfortable give-and-take of personal connections and hanging out with friends. Perhaps we should be thinking about “parental screen time limits,” not just worrying about the screen time of kids. Our cultural knowledge of how to behave, engage, and connect with friends, family, and co-workers seems to have fallen down a rabbit hole along with expectations for ourselves, not just others.

Can We Blame the Internet?

The effect of technology on human interaction is part of the loneliness epidemic, but it can’t be blamed simply on the “distant, but immediate” nature of social network platforms. We spend our time in our heads when we are reading and responding and posting to social media. We are thinking “lightning quick,” but we are forgetting about the delightfully unpredictable emotional aspects of relationships. It’s kind of like rating photos of potential dates on a limited amount of information. We see a profile pic and decide in an instant if it’s someone we would want to know better. We read a highly stylized bio and make judgments of what a person might be like in “real life.” Yet we forget that relationships are often sparked by emotional and unknowable reasons when we catch the eye of someone we’ve never met before, or share experiences at school, parties, on the train, etc.

Social media may open our world up to a billion new people, but it’s the “IRL” experience that is where friendships and relationships can really develop in ways that might not be predicted by a left or right swipe.

References

Haslam, S. A., McMahon, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., Jetten, J., & Steffens, N. K. (2018). Social cure, what social cure? The propensity to underestimate the important of social factors for health. Social Science & Medicine, 198, 14-21.

Reed, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2017). Learning on hold: Cell phones sidetrack parent-child interactions. Developmental Psychology, 53(8), 1428-1436. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000292

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