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Screentime

Why Diane Sawyer got it right about technology and our kids.

How do toddlers react when parents look down at their phones? Is the war for our attention destroying our relationships with each other? Has digital technology sabotaged teens' mental health? Is addiction the right analogy for our obsession with our devices?

These are only some of the questions Diane Sawyer and her team grappled with on the ABC Special Report Screentime, which aired last Friday. I was impressed not only by the scope of the report—from infants to teens, to school and the workplace—but by the balance with which she reported. The message was, let's not panic, but let's wake up and take stock of how mobile technology and social media shape our lives and our connections with others on a daily basis. And let's figure out now what to do about it because it's not working for many of us.

I was thrilled to have my research featured on the show. Our study was motivated by the question of whether the ubiquity of mobile devices and smartphones, which we all use to stay connected, might lead to more disconnection with our children.

Mothers and their infants aged 7 to 24 months participated in three distinct periods: playtime, the time when mothers use their mobile devices in front of their children, and the “reunion,” i.e. when mothers return attention to their babies and toddlers. Not only did we find that, unsurprisingly, children showed distress and made strong bids for attention when mothers were busy on their mobile devices, but children's negative emotions tended to linger into the reunion period. While many children bounced back and happily reengaged with their mothers, others found it more difficult and seemed preoccupied with whether their mothers might "disappear" again into their phones. Interestingly, we also asked parents how much they habitually used technology at home with their family. Mothers who reported more screen use at home had children who were less likely to explore the room during the study and displayed less positive engagement with their mothers during the reunion phase.

This study could be taken as evidence that we should never be on screens in front of our children. But that's not the take-home message, nor is guilt-tripping parents our goal. Instead, the take-home message of the study is that we parents should be aware that face-to-face time with our children is perhaps the most important time we have to give our children emotional feedback and tune into their needs. These quality interactions aren't just icing on the cake in terms of how young children learn about themselves and the world. It is the cake.

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