smart devices

Hold the Phone

U-M investigates how smart devices complicate parenting

By Amy Crawford
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The addictive nature of mobile technology might not surprise anyone who has felt the constant pull of Facebook and Twitter — especially in an election year. And when there are children in the house, the smartphone-wielding adult isn't the only one who feels the effects. That became clear to researchers at C.S Mott Children’s Hospital as they conducted a new qualitative study about parental smartphone use, published this month in The Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. In a series of in-depth interviews and group discussions, the researchers asked 35 mothers, fathers and grandparents who were caring for young children about the role of mobile devices in their homes. Jenny Radesky, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics and the study’s primary author, hopes the work leads to more conversations between pediatricians and parents about how mobile technology is affecting families — and what we can do about it.


What did the interviews reveal?

One interesting thing was that parents treated our focus groups like support groups. They reported really enjoying the opportunity to share their stories and share ideas with other parents. They talked about having a lot of stress about new media in their homes and not really knowing how to handle all of the new demands that it placed on them. This was a universal tension that revolved around their emotional and cognitive responses to technology.


Are smartphones and tablets unique in producing this tension?

I think that feeling of internal conflict reflects the ways societies usually feel in general when we adopt new technologies. We’re not used to the demands that they place on us or the way they change our behavior. That feels uncomfortable. Many parents reported they feel like they can’t keep up with all the new devices or apps or opportunities that they have to use media. They felt like they didn’t have a chance to step back and reflect and decide how they wanted to use media. Many of them felt like they themselves were being controlled.


Yet the parents’ experiences weren’t all negative.

Yes, there are huge positives that parents talked about, like being able to work from home more often if they had a professional career. They talked about the connections to friends or family, especially when they were home with their young kids and feeling like they had just been inside all day and they wanted to be reminded that there was a world out there. But this constant access to the outside world could also feel intrusive. One mother described it by saying, “The whole world is in my lap,” and she had never felt that way before. Many parents talked about how social media or the news made them feel information overload. They got sucked in and felt frazzled, which made it difficult to be emotionally available to a child. That was something that most parents felt strongly about.


How did the kids feel?

I wish I could have interviewed the kids. It would have been unlikely that the younger kids could have given coherent verbal explanations of what they feel, but I know my 7-year-old can be very verbal about when I’m on my device and how he feels about that. Because I work full time, my sons want my attention when I’m home. They will just climb all over me if I bring out a device, or they’ll say, “Get off your email.”… But in this study, we were more focused on how parents perceived their children’s reactions when their attention was on their device. Many parents said their children would act up, doing silly things they never would have done otherwise, trying to climb too high, trying to grab something that they know they shouldn’t have because they know their parent is distracted.


Parents have always been distracted from time to time — how is this new technology different?

Parents said they needed to focus more intently on what they were doing on the device compared to other distractions, like a phone call or reading a book or magazine. Especially if it was something related to work or a compelling social interaction, they said it was really frustrating to be interrupted by their child. They’d be more likely to snap at them, and it was more likely to lead to conflict.


Was there evidence that the children were being harmed emotionally or psychologically?

I think “harm” is too strong a word. The more important thing is to understand the parent’s perspective: It’s so much easier to parent when you don’t have five other things on your mind. Of course, we all live really, really busy lives. But the parents talked about how relieved they felt when they didn’t have technology available or when they, as a family, decided to go on a three-day unplugging. They talked about how nice it was to connect in other ways, and to feel like they were only doing one thing at a time with their brain. It was actually relaxing to them.


How can parents create healthy tech habits for themselves and their families?

The strategies we’re suggesting include using your phone’s “do not disturb” setting to help create boundaries. Have a place where the phone is charged as soon as you get home, or create a habit where you keep it in your bag and you limit its use to certain intentional times, instead of it feeling like this constant flood. … I just co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines for Children’s Media Use for kids 0 to 5, and we made an online tool for a family media use plan. You don’t have to take everything. You can take what works for you.


Parenting in America is already fraught. I can imagine a parent reading this and thinking, “Oh boy, here’s something else to feel guilty about.” How can pediatricians get through that defensiveness when they bring up these new guidelines during a checkup, or when they try to talk about smartphones?

Blanket parenting guidance is always met with a bit of pushback, but I’ve talked to many parents about their own technology use, and I don’t think there’s as much defensiveness as we would anticipate. I think the pediatrician should begin the conversation with, “This is a shared experience we’re all going through right now. How do you manage it? What’s going to make parenting easier for you?” I want pediatricians to open this as a conversation, not a dictate of what parents should be doing. It should help parents say, “Wait, why do I have to be attached to this all the time?”