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.
One of the main things impacted by parents who are overly occupied with technology is their children’s demeanor and overall behavior. A 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.
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.
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.