The dangers of distracted parenting

Parents today are often paying less attention to their children due to hand-held devices.

There is no denying we live in a uniquely media-saturated time. Most adults and teens alike have their cell phones with them the majority of the day. For many adults, mobile technology has led to an expectation that you are available for work at all times of the day. It can be very hard to unplug and step away from the demands of work, the never-ending news cycle and updates from friends and family around the world. The rise of media use among parents, causing them to be distracted and disengaged with their children, has coined a new term, “distracted parenting.”

What is distracted parenting? It is parental overuse of hand-held technology, particularly cell phones and tablets, in the presence of children. There are the obvious risks of distracted parenting—when parent’s eyes are on their phones, they are not on their children. Studies have shown a correlation between the incidences of playground injury and parents’ technology-related inattention. However, what is less obvious, and potentially more concerning, are the less obvious effects of parents whose attention is focused on screens instead of their children.

Distracted parenting has been found to have an impact on children’s social and emotional development. Infants, for example, look to their caregivers’ faces, and eyes in particular, for social cues. When the caregivers’ eyes are focused on their phone, the infant is not receiving those cues. A study conducted recently at Boston Medical Center and published in the journal Pediatrics found that when parents were distracted by technology, they were more likely to respond harshly to children’s behavior. While some children appeared to accept their parent’s inattention, others displayed escalating misbehavior, and the parents who kept their gazes primarily on their devices were most likely to respond harshly to their children.

What does this mean for today’s parents? It is unlikely that cell phones will stop being a part of family lives any time soon. However, parents can aim to be responsive to their children’s needs. They can set an example for technology use in responsible ways. Notice when children are trying to get your attention. Be responsive to children’s positive behaviors, noticing when they are kind, friendly, sharing, etc. Parents can look for important times in the day to be focused and connect, such as returning home from school or work. Set technology-free times such as meal times and bed times.

Distracted parenting is certainly a widespread phenomenon. Most parents are guilty of being distracted by their devices at points in time when they are with their children. No parent will be 100 percent attentive to their children, and actually some amount of inattention helps children learn to entertain themselves, solve their own problems and discover their own interests. The goal is not necessarily to be constantly focused on your child all of the time, but to find a balance, show your children they are important and be responsive to their needs. Set aside time to be focused on your children, ignore the push notifications and message alerts, and show them how important they are in your life.

Visit Michigan State University Extension’s Early Childhood Development page for resources and information for families and children and to find upcoming events in your area.

Did you find this article useful?