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Parenting Unplugged: Letting Technology Tune Out Our Children’s Needs

Parenting Unplugged: Letting Technology Tune Out Our Children’s Needs

Last Halloween the venerable New Yorker Magazine came out with their Halloween-themed cover (November 2, 2009), which was beautifully illustrated by graphic artist Chris Ware. In the illustration we are brought to the scene of Halloween night with children in costume eagerly mounting steps with bags held open in youthful anticipation of treats, as their dutiful parents stand at the bottom steps waiting with strollers positioned to catch candy-fatigued children. This would all be normal, maybe even Norman Rockwellesque, if it were not for the fact that the parents in waiting are framed like ghosts and utterly captive as they stare blankly into the glowing screen of their smart phones. The parents, while present enough to push along a stroller and address an emergency (maybe after the fact) are decidedly checked out of the seasonal tradition as well as removed from their children’s experience.

I was reminded of this haunting image by the latest article in a compelling series titled “Your Brain on Computers” published this week in the New York Times. The most recent piece concerned, not the overuse of communications technology by children and teens, but the overuse by offending parents and how this overuse (or misuse) affects relationships and self-esteem. In the article, Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, reveals that, after five years of interviews, she has found that feelings of hurt, jealousy and competition are widespread among young adults whose parents are routinely distracted by all the glories of technology. Dr Turkle contends, “There’s something that’s so engrossing about the kind of interactions people do with screens that they wall out the world.” She continues, “I’ve talked to children who try to get their parents to stop texting while driving and they get resistance, ‘Oh, just one, just one more quick one, honey.’ It’s like ‘one more drink.’ ”

While parents have always had to split their attention between matters of the home and everything else (work, social life, world events, etc) there is a marked difference between being available and being truly present. More than we give them credit, children are far more adept at picking up both physical and verbal cues that form an implicit sense of intimacy and consideration. Having a parent pecking away at an iPhone as a child is trying to relay a story or explain a confusing set of events does not make for a stable familial bond (duh!).

While there remains little solid research on how this constant use of technology impacts children (in the long term), it is safe to say that putting down the phone, putting the computer to sleep, or just disengaging from whatever the distraction might be, will likely be the proactive response to your child’s continual needs.

Is distraction simply distraction, whether you are engrossed in a Facebook post or cooking dinner? Is there something qualitatively different here, especially when children are in the mix? Is this a matter of simple respect and etiquette, or is it a matter of parents growing up and setting an important example? Are you guilty of this offense? If so, what is your justification?

Read more: Blogs, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Teens, , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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7:04AM PST on Dec 6, 2010

Godd article. My phone died & I do not miss it but I have to say the internet has made me want to read & buy more books. We just had a snowball fight & that was way more fun than texting etc!!

10:09AM PDT on Jun 19, 2010

The cover was scary. Thanks for the article. Quite interesting.

2:35AM PDT on Jun 19, 2010

These days, people are basically all hooked up to technology, whether they're doing business deals or playing games on their phones. If parents (or even other family members) took time, maybe an hour, where they switched off all technology and just spent it as family time, it would make a huge difference in family bonding.

5:48PM PDT on Jun 16, 2010

There is no justification in putting a piece of technology over your personal, one-on-one relationships. I really don't think there needs to be scientific studies to prove that parents use of iPhones and the like will have some sort of negative impact on children. Think about it.... You're the parent and a very strong influence on you child whether good or bad. And as it has been said, when a parent is giving their child 100% of their attention when a child is talking or while doing an activity with them, it's common the child feels distanced, ignored, al many other similar negative emotions.

When I was younger, I hated it when my mom wouldn't give me her full attention when I was trying to tell her something. It hurt actually. In fact it still does today when I talk to someone and because they're nose is buried in their technology (phone, game, whatever) it makes the statement that these inanimate objects are more important than quality time spent in relationships. And then we wonder why people are so closed off and cold.... I can't imagine why...

We'd be substantially wise to start focusing more on people and those around us and LESS on THINGS (material gadgets) that are--for the most part--a waste of time. These abundant gadgets I'm seeing has become yet another link in the chain of irresponsibility. As long as you have your nose buried in one non stop, you don't have to deal with life and responsibility, and that's really sad. =(

6:54PM PDT on Jun 15, 2010


9:41AM PDT on Jun 15, 2010

I once worked in a pottery studio, where customers would come in to paint bisque and then we'd fire it for them. I remember well a man coming in with his daughter. I thought it was great that a father would spend time with his little girl, doing an artistic activity--except that he spent the entire two hours on his cell phone! He barely acknowledged his daughter's presence as he yakked away on the phone to one person after another. He was there physically, but was not emotionally invested in his little girl's life. His actions plainly said, "These people I'm talking to on the phone are more important than you." How very sad.

Parents, if you're going to do something with your kids, DO IT WITH THEM! Leave the phone at home, or at least turn it off so that you can devote your whole attention to your children. Within minutes after you hang up, you won't even remember what you talked about; but the fun times you had with your kids will last for years, for them and you. If you spend more time on the cell phone than you spend talking with your children, you should re-evaluate your priorities.

9:35PM PDT on Jun 14, 2010

I noticed last year that my computer use was interrupting my relationship with my kids, so I cut back using it around them and if we were in the same room doing different things, I started asking the kids of they minded being on the computer.

As for other types of distractions, I still remember how my mother would read the newspaper while I spoke to her and I never really felt listened to when she did that.

5:29PM PDT on Jun 14, 2010

We are letting our technology decrease our ability to connect with one another on a truly human personal level and are becoming increasingly superficial with our relationships. What kind of a message does that send our children? What kind of adult will this encourage them to be? When a small person reaches out for love and attention and their big person can't be bothered because they are too busy with their electronic toys, where will they go for nurturing? TV ??? Please, spend AT LEAST one day a week away from these distractions and work on building the relationships that will last a lifetime with your loved ones.

5:33AM PDT on Jun 14, 2010

One can hardly talk to an adult without them checking, texting, or engaged with their Ipod or cell phone. I love my computer time but if it's interrupted who cares. It's always there waiting for me. I will not always be there for my family and friends.

1:20AM PDT on Jun 14, 2010

Very true and an urgent matter of concern for many people, parents or not, out and about. And I am as guilty as the rest. If my little one interrupts my 15 minutes computer time after lunch I get irritable and snappy with her - but why? I get 3-5 computer slots each day. It's only on the days where I'm using my slots solely for work purposes that I should feel any form of need to have my lunchtime one. In fact, starting today, it is being eliminated.

As for texting or phoning while driving - I feel like calling the police every time I see it!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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