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?