Why you should care
Because if you’re reading this and have offspring under the age of 16, you might be part of the problem.
There’s a lot to feel guilty about these days as a parent: working too much to spend time with your children; feeding the aforementioned children a steady diet of pizza, peanut butter sandwiches and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish; ruining everyone else’s plane ride. Perhaps no source of parental guilt, however, gets more attention these days — when it can get our attention, that is — than the overuse of electronic devices.
Smartphones have now been implicated in more developmental and relationship problems than Charlie Sheen. And while the instinct as a parent is to focus on what our children are focusing on — increasingly, pixilated screens a few inches from their faces — it might be about time we focused on doing something more about the screen that is only a few inches from our own faces … after you finish this article, naturally (your kids will be fine for another minute).
According to a large new online survey of parents across the globe, we have something new to feel guilty about: our own phones.
60 percent of parents felt bad for using their phone around their kids, and 36 percent had been told off by their own children for too much phone time.
The findings, from a report commissioned by Norton by Symantec and produced by the research firm Edelman Intelligence, come from a survey of 6,986 parents ages 18 years old and older, with children ages 5 to 16 in 10 nations across Europe and the Middle East. Among other things, the report looked at how electronic device usage habits among children can be influenced by how much time parents spend on their own devices. About 73 percent of those parents surveyed agreed that parents spend too much time online, setting a bad example for their children, with nearly half saying they felt guilty for the amount of time they spend online themselves.
There are some striking regional differences in the responses. Parents in Saudi Arabia (79 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (68 percent), for example, were much more likely to feel guilty for looking at their phone when they were with their children than parents in most European countries like Spain (61 percent), Germany (56 percent) and France (54 percent), and a lot more guilty than parents in Sweden (49 percent).
It appears that the majority of parents, at least outside of Sweden, are starting to recognize that they might suffer from what technology expert Linda Stone once branded “continuous partial attention.” And it’s a condition that not only harms the possessor but others as well, including their own children. Distracted parents don’t just push strollers into innocent bystanders and ignore playground hazards, they also risk disrupting the critical adult-child signaling system that helps shape the architecture of the developing child brain.
Responsive, engaged communication between a parent and child is one of the building blocks for human learning. Interrupt this process frequently — through a text message or a Facebook check — and you also interrupt a child’s development. Such a recurrent attention deficit can also affect both the parent’s and child’s critical thinking abilities. According to another recent study from the Reboot Foundation, only 20 percent of parents often ask their children to consider an opposing viewpoint, something that Reboot founder Helen Lee Bouygues attributes in part to the new culture of smartphone usage and information consumption among parents, who also largely do not take the time themselves to engage in critical thinking. “It doesn’t surprise me so much when you think about what the parents do themselves,” Bouygues says. “It goes back to awareness and practice.”
To be sure, there have been distracted parents for as long as there have been parents, and children have long been left to their own devices, even if they weren’t electronic ones. Overwhelmed mothers on the 19th-century American frontier, for example, left older children to run wild and placed babies in drawers and shoeboxes (and even to warm on open oven doors) while they attended to the day’s many chores. Still, there is something fitful and ever-present about today’s parental distraction.
The fact that, as indicated in the survey, children are telling their parents off in large numbers for using their phones is probably a good thing, and it points to one of the best ways to fixing the problem: responding to your child’s signals. Children are hard-wired to seek learning opportunities and their parents’ attention — we just have to listen to them. And if that doesn’t work, we can always return to some earlier remedies for chronic distraction. To treat the moral disease he termed “lack of attention,” the late-18th-century German physician Melchior Adam Weikard prescribed character training in the form of steel powder, sour milk and horseback riding.
Just putting down your phone sounds a whole lot easier.