The little girl was playing in the playground area of a fast food restaurant, yelling at her mom, “Watch me, Mama! Watch me!” Consumed by her cell phone, her mom did not hear her daughter calling to her. The child came down the slide, went over to her mom and started tugging on her arm, saying, “Mommy, Mommy, watch me.” At this point the mother looked at her daughter, seemingly irritated at the interruption, and said, “What?”
Perhaps you’ve been that mom at one point or another, and chances are good you’ve witnessed that mom. For some, that moment when a child is occupied on the safe playground is the opportunity to take a little break. For others, constant distractions keep parents from engaging with their kids.
Dr. Jenny Radesky is a fellow in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. She and a team of researchers observed 55 caregivers, usually a parent, eating and interacting with one or more children, from infants to 10-year-olds, in fast-food restaurants.
Out of 55 caregivers, 40 were involved with their phones during the meal. Sixteen of these adults used the mobile device throughout the meal. The researchers referred to this as “absorption with the mobile device.”
Three adults gave a device to a child to keep them occupied. One adult with a little girl picked up her phone as soon as she sat down, and she used it throughout the entire meal.
“The girl keeps eating, then gets up to cross the room to get more ketchup. Caregiver is not watching her do this; she is looking down at the phone…,” the notes showed. “Still no conversation… Now girl’s head appears to be looking right at caregiver, and caregiver looks up but not at girl…”
How much screen time is too much screen time when it comes to being an engaged parent? Perhaps the better question is, are you frequently distracted by your phone or some other device when your child is trying to get your attention? If you aren’t sure, The Gottman Institute encourages you to consider these questions:
- When was the last time you played with your child or teenager?
- What was the last conversation you shared as a family?
- Ask your kids if they feel you are distracted. Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication. Just avoid responding defensively and ask more about what they need from you.
- Think about the last conversation you had with an adult. Were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
- What makes you feel heard? The same things that make you feel heard probably apply to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.
Many young people complain that their parents nag at them for always being on their phone, yet they believe their parents are as consumed by technology as they are. Perhaps one of the most important things for parents to remember is that children are very good at copying the behavior that parents model for them.
Technology isn’t going away. When parents decide to put down the cell phone, turn off the game, and walk away from the emails on the computer to focus on their children, it sends a significant message: You matter. You are more important than the screen. I value you.
Face-to-face relationships beat technology any day of the week.