Parents, Put Down Your Smart Phones

New research shows negative effects of smartphone use in front of children

Posted Apr 26, 2018

Pretty much everyone, including me, is concerned about teens and technology. There is a lot to worry and wonder about. But let’s move the spotlight off the hapless digital natives for a second, and take a cold hard at ourselves.

How are we adults using digital technology in the context of our relationships with our children? Does it have a direct impact on them?

These are questions we’ve struggled with for a while now, questions that became more urgent with the birth of the smartphone about 10 years ago. With smartphones, it’s now effortless to insert digital technology into every interaction, every situation, and to do it on the go.

Intuitively, we know that smartphones take us out of the moment with our children and families. We’re tuned out, absorbed, withdrawn. We’ve escaped into the machine, even if for just a moment.

But is this so bad? We can’t pay attention to our kids 24/7, nor should we. Maybe there are benefits in terms of independence. But we’re left with that niggling feeling that there are costs too.

In a study published last year, led by Dr. Sarah Myruski, my research team moved one step beyond intuition and studied how parents’ smartphone use might directly influence children on the social-emotional level.

We adapted a classic experimental task in developmental psychology called the Still Face Paradigm, developed by Dr. Ed Tronick. In this task, parents are instructed to interact with their baby or toddler, but then, for one minute, to hold their face and body still, becoming completely unresponsive. When the parent ceases to be responsive, children find it confusing and ultimately distressing. They try to engage the parent again, and when that fails, show upset, despondency, or anxiety. After the minute is over, there is a recovery period in which the parent becomes responsive again. Most children, with relief, pick up where they left off and start interacting freely and happily again.

The rationale for the Still Face is that young children at this age are highly sensitive to the emotions and actions of their parents. Both the parent and child naturally work to attune to each other and coordinate, like a conversation, each expression, gesture and look. These interactions are typically positive and mutually rewarding. The Still Face, as a disruption of this expected attunement, has been used to better understand what might happen when parents withdraw from and are unresponsive to their children on a long-term basis, due to conditions like depression.

These patterns in the Still Face task map on well to what happens when parents use smartphones. We reasoned that, like the Still Face, when parents use devices in front of their children, they become for a period of time unresponsive and withdrawn. So, we created the “Still Face with Device” task (doesn’t really have a ring to it unfortunately) in which we used the same methods as the classic Still Face, but now instead of instructing the parent to be unresponsive, we asked parents to answer some questions on their devices for one minute.

Did the Still Face with Device work like the original?

We found that it did. Compared to a baseline period, when parents used devices, children showed increased distress, lower positive emotion, and lower exploration and engagement with toys. Interestingly, during the recovery period after parents put down the devices, the more that parents reported using higher levels of digital technology in their daily lives with their families, the less emotional recovery children showed. They were less positive, exploratory, and engaging.

BlackzheepShutterstock
Source: BlackzheepShutterstock

What is the take-home message? Our intuition is correct – smartphones do disrupt our relationship with our children on a social and emotional level. They suppress our ability to attune to each other, and this fracturing of attunement can be problematic.

But we need to know much, much more. How much is too much? What is the best way to use the devices if we must? How do we repair digital disruption of our relationships when it happens? How can we better teach our children to make choices around technology so that social connection is supported rather than undermined?

These questions, which takes us out of the binary logic of smartphones are “good” or “bad,” are the only way we’ll start to figure out how to disrupt the digital disruptions of our lives.