When parents get too distracted

Are we more attuned to our social media accounts than to our children? Francesca Sammut delves into the concept of ‘technoference’ and its repercussions on a child’s development.
Photo: Shutterstock.com

The technological age has long been upon us now. Today, parents in their 20s, 30s and 40s are no longer novices to portable tech gadgets. For the most part, they are tech-savvy and intrigued, or somewhat hooked, by the digital world.

Parental overuse of portable technology and social media, especially in the presence of young children, has become a modern welfare battle. This phenomenon is known as ‘distracted parenting’. Similarly, the concept of ‘technoference’, which is not limited to any particular social group, refers to disrupted interpersonal communication as a cause of technological devices.

Compulsive social media use has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Locally, quasi-lockdown measures translated into diminished social interactions with loved ones and an abundance of unoccupied time confined to our homes.

A local study examining social media trends during the pandemic established that enhanced social media use was not simply due to pandemic boredom. Additionally, it served as a means of collecting information and staying informed, as a way of interacting with family and friends, as a vessel of comfort and to alleviate anxiety.

The latter finding was backed by a German study, which found that compulsive social media use provided a sheer sense of control in times of anxiety. Unfortunately, such factors indisputably intensified the malpractice of distracted parenting during the coronavirus pandemic.

The harms of distracted parenting

Distracted parenting is a form of escapism, wherein parents flee to social media sites to avoid mundane activities related to childcare. Such escapism may jeopardise the attachment prevalent between parent and child. Ironically, the safety net granted by a secure parent-child attachment is very much indispensable during such indeterminate times.

Despite the fact that children seem to be the most resistant to physical COVID-19 symptoms, they are still susceptible to anxiety and depression triggered by the pandemic and its impact on social interactions.

Infants’ brains are loose clusters of neurons awaiting signals which prompt neuronal connections. Infants start forming such connections through a series of ‘serve and return’ interactions – a baby smiles and the mother smiles back, or the baby cries and the father caresses them.

Infants are instinctively born to observe their caregivers’ eyes for social cues. Alas, these eyes are often glued to a smartphone or tablet instead. So, what happens when the parent fails to transmit the ‘return’?

Such malpractices hinder social and psychological child development, such as delayed language and communication skills, and eventually, poor socialisation skills. 

Distracted parenting becomes a real threat when distraction becomes so intense that the child’s needs are neglected. Physical development may hence also be hindered.

A classic example: throwing a handful of store-bought chicken nuggets in the oven instead of cooking a hearty meal so that more time can be allocated to ‘exciting’ internet surfing. Surely this convenience strategy would not be a problem if it were limited to once or twice a week, but doing this on a daily basis is outright alarming and hazardous to the child’s physical health.

Research has shown that gadget escapism during times of supposed child supervision has led to a sharp increase in unintentional child injuries due to negligence. Lack of interpersonal communication at home and around the kitchen or restaurant table may also be attributed to compulsive social media use.

Research conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine remarked that parents who were technologically absorbed during dinnertime had 20 per cent less conversation with their child and 39 per cent fewer non-verbal interactions. Usual reports pin this technoference on children or teenagers, rather than parents. Yet it’s about time we realise that parents have also become engrossed in their online niche.

Children whose parents are habitually glued to their phones were more likely to exhibit problematic behaviour, a study by McDaniel et al (2018) found. Child misbehaviours such as whining, sulking, resistance to discipline and temper tantrums were all associated with distracted parenting. In turn, technologically absorbed parents frequently responded harshly to child misbehaviour. Oftentimes, such misbehaviour is nothing short of a cry for attention, and parental effort should be made to recognise this plea.

Distracted parenting becomes a real threat when distraction becomes so intense that the child’s needs are neglected”

As children grow older, there will be novel challenges. It is crucial for parents to impart a sense of availability and responsiveness towards their child, as this promotes positive emotional regulation. If a distressed child is ignored, the distress will be amplified.

Parents should be available to soothe the child. Without such efforts, or feeble efforts laced with inconsistency and unpredictability, feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-worth are likely to arise. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, professor of psychology at the City University of New York, wrote:

“If our children learn to navigate these challenging moments with devices, they may have fewer and less flexible strategies at their disposal to cope with day-to-day social ups and downs.”

Silencing our children with technological devices is thus not viable. It is a sad sight to see parents giving children their tablets for hours on end, just so they can enjoy time on their own respective gadgets. Apart from the psychological implications, excessive screen time has been linked with obesity, poorer academic performance, behavioural issues and sleep problems.

The World Health Organisation recommends no more than one hour of screen time for children aged between one and four.

Parenting is surely no easy task. It is important to be mindful of one’s parenting style and to avoid falling into the trap of downplaying devise usage and dismissing ‘parental distraction’ claims on account of denial. Heavy technological use leads to poor quality parenting and increased child development problems. Hence, it is imperative to live in ‘the here and now’ and to put habitual meaningful parent-child interactions on the agenda.

It is a sad sight to see parents giving children their tablets for hours on end, just so they can enjoy time on their own respective gadgets. Photo: Shuttestock.com

Tips for overcoming distracted parenting

  • Create ‘digital free’ boundaries, such as a no-gadget rule on the family dining table or while on family outings.
  • Silence your notifications when attempting to have meaningful parent-child interactions.
  • Dedicate specific timeslots for tele-working whereby gadget use is allowed. Out of this timeslot, avoid the use of gadgets, especially around your child(ren).
  • Dedicate specific face-to-face time to your child(ren) each day. During this time. put away any potentially distracting technological device so that you may focus on your child(ren)’s needs.
  • Be mindful of your technological use and set goals and limits. If need be, use a screen-time tracker.
  • Model healthy technological use – children learn by example.

Francesca Sammut is a qualified mental health nurse.

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