Parents’ Playing on Mobile Devices

In an article in The East Hampton Star, professor of psychology William Crain observes that increased use of cell phones by parents is depriving infants and children of much needed attention and opportunities for attachment. Citing John Bowlby, Erik Erikson, and D. W. Winnicott, who all stressed the importance of parental responsiveness to the development of their children’s feelings of self-worth, Crain expresses his concerns about contemporary parenting and argues that pediatricians should be talking with parents about their use of screens.

It is worrisome to me, as well, when I observe parents who are so focused on their digital connections that they ignore their children. When parents pushing strollers are busy talking or texting, they are missing the opportunity to point out a tulip, a squirrel or a snowflake to their children. In short, they are missing a chance to play with their children. I have noted how play contributes to cognitive development and learning, so it is probable that such a missed opportunity adversely affects a child’s cognitive development. Worse, however, is how it adversely affects the developing bond between parent and child and therein the child’s very development of identity, also facilitated by parent/child play.

Crain points to a study conducted by pediatrician Jenny Redesky where she and her team observed parents’ cell phone use in fast food restaurants. Not so surprisingly,

Seventy-three percent of the caregivers used mobile devices during the meals; 29 percent used their devices almost the entire time. Some never looked away from them.

More disturbing, however, was the kind of interaction with their children, when the children vied for attention. In Crain’s summary:

While the caregivers were absorbed in their devices, the children frequently wriggled or engaged in provocative behavior to try to get their attention, but the caregivers generally ignored or scolded them. One young boy repeatedly tried to lift a female caregiver’s face up from a tablet screen, but she just kept pushing his hand away. When another child tried to get his caregiver’s attention, she kicked his leg under the table. A few tried to quiet the children by giving them their own tablets to play with.

Noting how “attached” parents have become to their cellular devices, Crain offers a few behavioral techniques to redress the problem. He suggests that parents reward themselves for paying attention to their children:

When sitting across from a child at a meal, for example, caregivers might reward themselves with a sip of coffee or a bite of tasty food only after spending a few seconds paying attention to the child. To be comfortable with the process, caregivers should initially keep the periods between rewards very brief and lengthen the periods very gradually. I bet that before long they will enjoy the children even more than the technological devices.

It is a very disturbing and sad commentary on the nature of relationships in modern life if Crain is right that parents must reward themselves for the onerous job of bonding with their children.

Apparently for some parents the digital attachments they form are more compelling than the attachments they have with their own children. This is alarming not only for what it says about these children’s developing capacity for relationships with others but also for what it says about what their parents are missing. The richness that we can have in a face to face encounter is simply not available to us digitally.

How can it be that parents are not compelled by the bond with their children?

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