Kara ----------
17 February 2024

Your Cellphone vs. Your Children

Thirty-two percent of children report feeling unimportant when their parents are on their phones. As more and more parents are becoming seemingly addicted to their phones, psychologists everywhere are worried for their kids. When parents pay more attention to their screens than their children, the effects this has on the children's health can be devastating.

Edward Tronick, a psychologist, conducted an experiment in the 1970s called the still-face experiment. In this experiment, mothers were recorded interacting with their babies. After two minutes, the mothers were to stop paying attention to their babies and just stare blankly. The children would display signs of distress almost immediately. They would cry out, reach out to their mothers, shake, and do anything for their mothers' attention. Some babies gave up, attempting to soothe themselves or collapsing back into their seats. The still-face experiment may seem outlandish, as no right-minded parent would completely ignore their child like that. However, when put into a modern context, it's eerily common. "Someone playing with a modern smartphone is exactly like a still-faced paradigm," Says Caspar Addyman, a developmental psychologist and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab at the Goldsmiths University of London. "Dozens of times a day, as I walk, eat, and parent, my phone distracts me and, embarrassingly, the kids are starting to notice. Child psychologists are also noticing, and they're concerned—not for me, but for my kids," Says Carissa Halton in an article she wrote on the topic.

Neurons in the brain that support language and communication skills rely on what is known as serve and return interactions, where one person sends a signal and the other responds. If a child sends a signal but the parent doesn't respond, their attention instead being on their phone, the child's mental growth is stunted. When distracted by a device at dinner, parents have twenty percent less conversation with their child and thirty-nine percent less non-verbal interactions, found researchers at Boston University School of Medicine. "Often, the effect of looking down at a screen can eliminate the opportunity and space kids need to say what's on their mind," Says child psychologist Jeanne Williams, "When a kid is distressed and you completely ignore them, their distress is going to grow. They won't build neural pathways that teach them how to soothe themselves."

While distracted parenting isn't new, even with technology being the distraction, today's technology makes these distractions even worse—often on purpose. Modern technology is designed to be with us wherever we go, constantly drawing us in to make more and more money. Algorithms play on our vulnerabilities and interests to keep our attention. Brandon McDaniel, assistant professor in Human Development and Family Science at Illinois State University, observed that the more parents are distracted by technology, the more their children act out in an attempt for their attention. The children acting out led to parents becoming stressed, and this stress led the parents right back to their technology, which led to the children acting out in the first place. It's a cycle harming families all around. McDaniel encourages families to take the time to better manage tech use to try and stop this cycle. "Try to have some regular time that you are one hundred percent focused on your kid," Says Williams, even if it's something small. Whatever it is, make sure to commit to having zero distractions.

Parents staring at their devices instead of giving their children the attention they need to thrive can lead to children becoming depressed or lashing out in a desperate plea for their parents' engagement. Just setting aside a part of the day to have undistracted bonding time with your children can be incredibly beneficial to their health and your relationship. Next time you're bored, instead of doom-scrolling, spend time with your family.