Distracted Parenting

By: Neil Mufson
Mr. Mufson recommends that parents set aside their electronics to be truly present with their children.
A summer issue of The Atlantic included an article with a provocative title: “The Dangers of Distracted Parenting.” Erika Christakis began the piece like this: “Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes — car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems… — that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains under-appreciated: more than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.”
The article notes that, despite dual careers and all sorts of busyness, although parents actually spend more time with their children than almost any other parents in history, “the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.” Linda Stone, a technology expert the article introduces, labels this phenomenon “continuous partial attention.” She maintains that our “new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning.”
Christakis goes on to note that what researchers call the “serve and return style of communication,” or the “conversational duet” has marked parent-child interactions for centuries and is responsible for essential, varied, and substantial early learning. She affirms that “language is the single best predictor of school achievement.”  But, she maintains that much of this critical early learning gets interrupted and compromised when parents regularly engage in activities like checking their messages or Instagram. She also notes that “as smartphone adoption rose, childhood ER visits increased.”
Beyond lost early learning opportunities and physical danger lurk what parental disengagement communicates to children about what is most important — an incoming text more than a child’s bid for attention, virtual communication rather than human interaction and connection. Ultimately, Christakis thinks we need to sit up and consider this: “We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable — always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.”

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