Distracted parenting

Karen Staub, prevention coordinator for the Wexford-Missaukee Child Protection Council, speaks at a conference held recently by the Upper Peninsula Children’s Coalition. (Photo by Amy Gawry)

By Amy Gawry

In April, the U.P. Children’s Coalition put on a conference for family and human services professionals called Strengthening Families Through the Protective Factors Framework. While some of the conference content was specific to training service providers, one session’s topic discussed an issue that’s relevant to anyone who interacts with children—the overuse of technology and its effect on children and families.

“It is a growing issue, and it’s going to continue to get bigger as technology takes over more and more of our lives,” said Karen Staub, prevention coordinator for the Wexford-Missaukee Child Protection Council, who led the session.

The “Distracted Parenting” session covered two main points of concern related to technology overuse during the developmental years. One was parents being distracted by technology when they’re around their kids, and the other is the effects on a child’s development when they are allowed to overuse technology themselves.

The term “distracted parenting” comes from the findings of a 10-year study, released in 2014, which investigated the rise in the number of preventable accidents of children up to 3 years old. While the study could not conclusively say that technology use was the reason for this increase in accidents, they did find that as cell phone usage increased, so did the rate of preventable accidents.

“They can make that correlation enough to know that the two are definitely related,” Staub said.

“Distracted parenting” refers to the increased use of electronic and mobile devices by parents and caregivers, which leads to less attention given to the children. Staub believes it’s important for both professionals and parents to be aware of this issue and the ongoing problems it can cause.

It is important to note that Staub is not talking about all technology usage as a bad thing. Electronics have their place and can be useful and necessary at appropriate times.

“I’m not talking about using technology, I’m talking about over-using technology,” Staub said.

Staub shared an example from an article, demonstrating how a parent or guardian’s overuse of technology can result in an accident that could have been prevented. A woman was taking care of her friend’s child at a hotel pool, and she stopped to check her phone before getting in to swim with the child. She thought that she was only on her phone for 15 or 20 seconds, but a later review of security footage showed that three minutes went by while she was distracted by her phone. During that time, the child tried to get her attention, decided to get into the pool without her because she was ignoring him, and then slipped on the steps getting in and hit his head.

“The time that we spend on our device, we think it’s just a few seconds or a few minutes, but it ends up being so much more time,” Staub said.

Numerous studies and social experiments have shown that when people are paying attention to their devices, they’re oblivious to what’s going on around them. One such TV segment showed people completely missing the fact that a clown on a unicycle passed by them while they were on their mobile device.

“We are more absorbed in our devices than we think we are,” Staub said.

Some people spend so much time on their devices that the overstimulation of the brain causes physical withdrawal symptoms or disconnect anxiety when they’re separated from technology.

“Anything has a potential to become addictive, so everything in moderation,” Staub said.

An increase in preventable accidents is only one of many problems that can result from distracted parenting. This lack of attention can inhibit verbal communication and language skills in children, because they are not being engaged in conversation with adults enough. It can also result in lower social and emotional health, which affects the child’s ability to form relationships, interact with others, handle emotions and deal with problems.

In some cases, it may also cause children to act out more, in an attempt to get the attention they’re lacking.  The child sees that normal actions do not get a parent’s attention, so the child may  try something beyond that because it might make his parents look up.

When Staub went to share some distracted parenting handouts with a local pediatrician’s office, she learned that health care professionals were struggling with this issue on a regular basis.

“They were seeing a huge problem with moms and dads coming in with their little ones for health visits and paying attention to their phones instead of their child’s illness,” Staub said.

Childcare centers and schools have experienced similar problems when parents come to pick up or drop off their children. Parents are missing out on obtaining important information about their child’s day, and losing an opportunity to connect with their child during transition times, which can potentially be a more difficult time of the day for children.

Staub encourages parents to be present when they’re with their children. Not only is it better for children and their development, it’s a better use of the limited time that the parent has with the child.

“Your time with your kids is short; enjoy it,” Staub said.

Parents’ overuse of technology, however, is only one side of the problem. Many children are now getting access to electronics very early in life. They like playing games or watching videos on them, and it keeps them occupied and quiet. While occasional usage is not a big deal for children over 2 years old, overusage has a negative effect on a child’s development.

“Schools are having more and more difficulties with kids coming into preschool and kindergarten with a reduction in their social and emotional skills, and it is because of technology,” Staub said.

Researchers have looked at brain scans of children and adults with high levels of technology usage, and have compared them with those who have experienced trauma, either physical or emotional. Trauma during key stages of development causes holes in the brain’s formation. The technology overusage scans show very similar holes in brain development.

“They can’t tell the difference,” Staub said.

Some now believe that the rise in the number of children with ADHD symptoms is more related to these holes in development than the actual disease of ADHD. While there are true cases of ADHD that benefit from medication, there are many cases where the symptoms have other causes and can be remedied by other means.

“They need either attention for the trauma situation, and that problem needs to be addressed, or they need to reduce their use of technology and build their true social skills,” Staub said.

Excessive technology usage can also overstimulate the brain, and once it gets used to that, it craves more stimulation and instant gratification. This can explain some of the attention deficit problems, and in the long run, it can make a brain more susceptible to other conditions in the future.

This does not just affect young children. Brain development continues into a person’s early to mid-20s, which means that teens are not out of the danger zone.

“Their brains are not done developing, but yet we treat them as if they are. Our teens need us as much as our toddlers do, and sometimes even more,” Staub said.

Parents need to show their kids how to use electronics moderately by keeping their own usage in check.

“You really have to live what you’re telling them,” Staub said.

This also applies to professionals who deal with children in their work, or professionals who work with distracted parents. They need to demonstrate the importance of being present and ignoring their devices by doing it themselves.

There are some circumstances where people do need to take care of important work or personal business on their phones when they’re around their children or other people. Staub said the key to making this less of a problem is communication. Tell them what it is that has to be done.

“Let them know what you’re doing on your phone. It reduces that sense of isolation from them,” Staub said.

The same principle applies to interactions with kids and teens about their device usage. Staub said she asks her daughter what’s going on when they’re in the car and her daughter is texting a friend she just saw.

“If there’s something important and she’s continuing that conversation of what’s going on, that’s fine, just tell me what it is and then let’s talk about it. But if it’s nothing, then put it away, because this is my time with her,” Staub said.

Staub encouraged families to make a conscious effort to engage in more activities that allow them to connect to each other without technology. Reading together, doing puzzles, playing board games, going for walks or hikes, playing outside, doing yard or garden work, and cooking or baking together are all examples of activities that can connect people without technology.

It’s also good to have designated technology-free times, where everyone in the family has to put their devices away. For many families, this means no phones at the dinner table. Staub thinks families should make practices like this a regular part of their day or week.

“It’s about establishing some type of routine outside of technology,” Staub said.

Visit wexfordmissaukeecpc.com for more resources on distracted parenting.

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