The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

There’s no ques­tion about it — we live in a dis­tract­ed age. In the era of mul­ti­task­ing, it’s rare these days for peo­ple to focus on one thing at a time, let alone giv­ing pri­or­i­ty to one thing com­plete­ly. Every day, pri­or­i­ties and impor­tant rela­tion­ships have to com­pete with a huge range of dis­trac­tions, includ­ing calls, text mes­sages, work, noti­fi­ca­tions, social media, and more. This has sig­nif­i­cant impacts on our lives, includ­ing dimin­ish­ing our atten­tion spans and dam­ag­ing our rela­tion­ships, among oth­er con­se­quences. And the rela­tion­ships that our dis­tract­ed world impacts most is that between par­ent and child.

We’ve writ­ten exten­sive­ly about the issue of how much screen time chil­dren should have and the impor­tance of lim­it­ing it. While many par­ents are aware of the dan­gers of too much screen time for their chil­dren, they often over­look the neg­a­tive con­se­quences of their own over-use of devices.

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Demeanor

One of the main things impact­ed by par­ents who are over­ly occu­pied with tech­nol­o­gy is their children’s demeanor and over­all behav­ior. 2018 study showed that dis­tract­ed par­ent­ing is linked to a vari­ety of behav­ioral issues in kids. The researcher-dubbed term tech­nofer­ence” (day-to-day inter­rup­tions caused by devices dur­ing cru­cial moments) was linked to prob­lems such as sulk­ing, whin­ing, hurt feel­ings, tantrums, and frus­tra­tion. This is due to the fact that even the best mul­ti-taskers can only pro­vide focus in so many areas, lead­ing par­ents to miss impor­tant cues and strug­gle to man­age their children’s behavior.

On top of that, a study pub­lished in the jour­nal Pedi­atrics found that care­givers who were engaged more with their mobile devices dur­ing impor­tant times like meals respond­ed more harsh­ly and neg­a­tive­ly toward their chil­dren than less dis­tract­ed par­ents. It goes with­out say­ing that exces­sive­ly harsh and neg­a­tive respons­es toward chil­dren by trust­ed adults can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly dam­ag­ing to a child’s well-being and emo­tion­al development.

Physical Safety

Beyond the behav­ioral con­se­quences of dis­tract­ed par­ent­ing which are seri­ous in and of them­selves, being dis­tract­ed as a par­ent can also present threats to chil­drens’ phys­i­cal safe­ty and well-being. 

For exam­ple, a report from Bloomberg shows that even par­ents con­tribute to the recent dis­tract­ed dri­ving cri­sis that has led to a surge in U.S. traf­fic fatal­i­ties. In fact, 50 per­cent of par­ents use smart­phones while dri­ving, even with chil­dren in the car. That is putting in dan­ger not only them­selves and oth­ers, but also their own children. 

And it’s not just in the car that parental dis­tract­ed­ness can put chil­dren phys­i­cal­ly at risk. The more dis­tract­ed their par­ents are, the more chil­dren will be sus­cep­ti­ble to phys­i­cal harm due to a lack of prop­er super­vi­sion. This includes play­ground injuries like falling off of a high plat­form to injuries around the home. Imag­ine what can hap­pen if a young child just learn­ing to walk has even just a few moments unsu­per­vised around things like elec­tri­cal out­lets, sharp fur­ni­ture, etc. 

And, of course, there are the safe­ty issues relat­ed to parental dis­trac­tions while away from the home, such as on an out­ing to a park or mall. Chil­dren can wan­der off, be at a height­ened risk for abduc­tion, get lost or for­got­ten, and so on.

Social and Emotional Development

Final­ly, it’s impor­tant to acknowl­edge the impact of dis­tract­ed par­ent­ing on a child’s social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment. These days, par­ents are less emo­tion­al­ly present than ever. Dis­trac­tion caus­es them to mis­read or alto­geth­er miss their children’s emo­tion­al cues or needs, which can lead to chil­dren hav­ing poor social skills and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion issues.

Devel­op­men­tal­ly speak­ing, infants and young chil­dren learn best from diverse vocal pat­terns, such as back and forth inter­ac­tions resem­bling con­ver­sa­tions between par­ent and child. This inter­per­son­al pat­tern is bro­ken when a par­ent dis­en­gages from their child in order to check a noti­fi­ca­tion, respond to a text, or answer a phone call. This means the child is put in a dis­ad­van­taged posi­tion when it comes to ear­ly learn­ing, espe­cial­ly in the realm of lan­guage acqui­si­tion and development.

Conclusion

Dis­tract­ed par­ent­ing can have both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects and impli­ca­tions that can stretch well into the rest of a child’s life. The bot­tom line is that when it comes to pro­tect­ing chil­dren and fam­i­lies from the neg­a­tive impacts of increas­ing depen­dence on tech­nol­o­gy, par­ents’ screen time is just as rel­e­vant as children’s. Parental use of screens, includ­ing how and when they use devices on top of fre­quen­cy, can be just as impor­tant as reg­u­lat­ing a child’s screen time. 

But it doesn’t have to be a sac­ri­fice or a strug­gle to focus more on chil­dren and less on screens. Being more mind­ful about day-to-day activ­i­ties, such as par­ent­ing, can ben­e­fit mood, men­tal health, and hap­pi­ness and helps to build clos­er, more mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with fam­i­ly and loved ones, all while pro­tect­ing chil­dren from the behav­ioral, phys­i­cal, and devel­op­men­tal con­se­quences of being dis­tract­ed as a parent.