By: David Lee Sexton, Jr. and Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT
“Mom!! Can you PLEASE put your phone down and pay attention to me for just a minute? I need your help.”
Ouch. That stings. I wish I could tell you that this was the one and only time my 8-year-old son has called me out on the overuse of my phone or other electronics while he has so frustratingly (for him) attempted to get my attention. But, if I told you that, I wouldn’t be telling the truth. I have found myself in this shameful situation more than I prefer to acknowledge. But, I know I am not alone. And, while I know that I am a good mother, I also admit that I have fallen into the category of sometimes being a distracted parent.
We’ve all heard the stories: a busy parent, a child momentarily forgotten in a hot car resulting in a dangerous and potentially horrific situation. According to the Washington Post, death by hyperthermia is the official term for the tragic outcome of distracted parents leaving behind children in parked cars due to distraction, a change in routine, or an unusual amount or type of stress (Weingarten, 2009). Although this occurs about 15 to 25 times per year in the US, it is but an extreme example of the risks of distracted parenting (Weingarten, 2009).
Worthen (2012) indicates that there is a possible connection between device (such as mobile phone) distraction and child injuries. In the age of fast-paced technology growth, trends indicate a change of direction in the rates of child injuries; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2007 and 2010, nonfatal injuries to children under the age of five increased by 12%, a rapid incline compared to declining rates during the prior decade (Worthen 2012).
Meanwhile, phone ownership for Americans 13 and older has increased from 9 million (coinciding with the release of the iPhone in 2007) to 114 million in 2012 (Worthen, 2012). Worthen notes that this connection is merely correlational and points out the difficulty in identifying direct causality due to issues with collecting the appropriate data, such as unlikelihood of parents to self-report their use of a mobile device during the time of their child’s injury. However, research has examined other factors that may emphasize the overall negative outcomes of distracted parenting.
McDaniel and Radesky (2017) examine the relationship between distracted parenting caused by interferences (known in the literature as technoference) in parent-child interactions and the externalizing and internalizing of behavior by children. Examples of internalizing behavior are represented by sulking, whining, and easily hurt feelings while externalizing behavior may look like restlessness, an inability to sit still, or proneness to temper tantrums. Interestingly, McDaniel and Radesky found support for the relationship between technoference and both externalized and internalized behaviors of children, reported by both mothers and fathers. However, this result was only found in mother-child interactions. In contrast, father-child interactions did not predict externalizing and internalizing. McDaniel and Radesky offer two compelling explanations for this discrepancy. First, it is possible that children respond differently to maternal and paternal interactions. However, perhaps the most plausible explanation comes from sample characteristics, as 30% of mothers in the sample worked 30+ hours per week in contrast to 82% of fathers. As such, the fathers in the study sample may have simply had fewer opportunities to interact with their children.
While the literature highlighted above is just a mere sampling of research on the topic of distracted parenting, it certainly elicits the question of how technology use is impacting parenting and parent-child interaction. I can see from my own home, how my distracted parenting impacts the behavior of my children and the interactions I have with them. I can also see it with other parents and their children when we are at the park, at a restaurant, and at a grocery store. So, what does all of this mean? It means that we may need to all take a closer look at our own personal experience with distracted parenting and figure out what works best for our families. It is possible to find that happy medium between the use of technology and non-distracted parenting. The goal is just finding that ‘sweet spot’ within your own household.
How do YOU find your ‘sweet spot’? Tell us in the comments below what you do to mitigate your own distracted parenting and what works for you and your family!
McDaniel, B. T. & Radesky, J. S. (2017). Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with child behavior problems. Child Development, https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12822
Weingarten, G. (2009, March 8). Fatal distraction: Forgetting a child in the backseat of a car is a horrifying mistake. Is it a crime? The Washington Post, p. W08. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/fatal-distraction-forgetting-a-child-in-thebackseat-of-a-car-is-a-horrifying-mistake-is-it-a-crime/2014/06/16/8ae0fe3a-f580-11e3-a3a5-42be35962a52_story.html?utm_term=.f8362a52169b
Worthen, B. (2012, September 29). The perils of texting while parenting. The Wall Street Journal, p. C1. Retrieved from http://members.aon.at/emarsale/deutsch/Perils_of_texting.pdf
This blog was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT and David Lee Sexton, Jr, members of the MFLN Family Development Team. The Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.