Parenting in the digital age: the impact of our screen obsession

Parents use of phones can affect their interaction with their children. Picture by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash
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Booming technology is changing family dynamics, as well as potentially affecting children's health. Jessie Nguyen reports.

A parent goes into a crowded fast-food restaurant with their child. The waiting time is long and the child gets bored. They keep nagging and asking when the food is coming out.

The parent, busy with checking text messages on their phone, gives the child an iPad and tells them to watch some YouTube videos, kill the time and be quiet.

For many of us, this is an everyday scene.

Digital took over parenting

Children’s nervous systems are more sensitive to the impacts of electromagnetic fields than adults, research published in Clinical and Experimental Pediatrics in 2020 about the effects of electromagnetic fields on children’s health shows.

Another study found children receive two to three-fold higher RF doses than their adult counterparts when a cell phone is positioned at their ear, or when they view virtual reality through the use of a smartphone.

Yet, the number of children using smartphones at an early age is alarming. A 2020 study by Pew Research Center showed 60 per cent of parents in the United States reported that their child began using a smartphone before the age of five.

In Australia, a 2021 study showed every one in three children under the age of 12 has their own mobile device.

Smartphones and tablets have become useful and powerful tools in parenting for modern parents. Phones become a way to distract children, to occupy them, to stop them from throwing a tantrum, or simply just to make them sit still. Kids get to play on a smartphone when they behave well, as a “small” prize from their parents.

Parenting in the digital age: the impact of our screen obsession
One in three Australian children has their own mobile device.

In time, in children’s minds, using a smartphone can become an inseparable part of eating or behaving well. It’s a habit that can lead to addiction, quite apart from any harmful effects from the phone itself.

Parents’ use of technology also affects a child’s development

With the evolution of technology, the hybrid or work from home model has enabled parents to have more time to spend with their children. But it doesn’t always translate to emotional closeness, when parents might be spending a lot of that time on their own devices.

Parents’ use of mobile devices on the parent-child interaction had a number of common results, a study in 2017 found.

  • Increased mobile connections can make parents distracted from interactions with their children.
  • Parenting while distracted leads to less responsiveness and sensitivity towards their children.
  • As a way of getting their parents’ attention, children engage in risky behaviours.
  • There may be a link between distracted parenting and childhood injuries.
  • Control over the use of devices is complicated and can lead to family conflict.

Reconnecting again

Parents obviously deserve “me” time, but children also need enough interaction with their parents for healthy social and emotional development.

Experts have come up with these suggestions to help families stay unplugged and reduce the reliance on mobile phones on parenting:

  • No tech use during mealtime.

While it is hard for younger kids to stay still and eat their meal, instead of letting them watch videos or play games on mobile phones, parents can try putting on some music (without the visiblility of a cell phone) and play with them while they eat. Experts agree that putting away any mobile devices from the dinner table is one of the most important practices to lessen the “technoference” – a disruption in interpersonal interactions due to digital and technology use – in parent-child interactions.

“A family sit-down meal is one of the most protective things you can do not only for your kid’s nutrition, but for a whole host of psychological well-being issues, and once a screen is on, all those positive effects disappear because you’re distracted,” Director Michael Rich from the Boston Children’s Hospital wrote in an article in the journal of the American Psychology Association..

  • Real conversations and eye contact matter.

Dr Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center, says the primary way for children to learn language, and about emotions and how to regulate them, is through face-to-face interactions. “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”  

  • Track and reverse time for top priority tasks.

Parents can track down the times where they need to use their phone the most, such as checking emails from work or updating the news, then try switching these tasks to a time frame that they wouldn’t be occupied by children, for example, 30 minutes before waking up the kids in the morning.  “[While] children don’t need their parents to be 100 per cent responsive to them to have healthy social and emotional development, there is a tipping point,” Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair says.