Most people have a general understanding of the impact intense quantities of screen time have on children, but emerging research brings to light the equally concerning impact parental smartphone use has on those children.
The data, featured in the Atlantic magazine, reveal that parents' digital addictions are putting children at risk. In light of this, parents should find ways to put down the phone and tune into their children's needs.
As Erika Chistakis highlights in her Atlantic article, parents spend more physical time with their children than parents did in previous decades. However, she argues the quality of that time is significantly diminished by their lack of emotional availability. This is what, as the article notes, technology expert Linda Stone has called "continuous partial attention." While there is a moral argument against this kind of engagement on the grounds of respect — that it is disrespectful to not engage intentionally with anyone, particularly one's own children — the author's most compelling argument is scientifically, not morally, grounded.
Specifically, the author cites Jack P. Shonkoff, a researcher at Harvard's Center on the Developing Child, to reveal how relational a child's verbal development is: Children rely with near exclusivity on engaged call and response communication to build the early architecture of their brain. While it may seem harmless to surf social media or send emails while baby sitting an infant who is incapable of holding a conversation, research has revealed that children who are spoken to frequently before the age of 2 develop a vocabulary twice as large as those without intentionally communicative caretakers.
This language makes a significant difference in the academic potential of children, according to psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. "Language is the single best predictor of school achievement," she told the Atlantic, "and the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults."
While the physical, cognitive and emotional dangers posed by distracted parenting are evident, the most important takeaway for busy parents juggling demanding jobs and obligations all while trying to remain engaged with their children is that perfection is not possible. All parents will occasionally slip — for example, taking an important call in the middle of a conversation with their children. However, the key is to disrupt the habits of cellphone use in the idle time that could instead be spent engaging with children. This "chronic distraction" seems a small thing in the moment, but it may prove significant in the long run of a child's upbringing.
In recent months, this editorial board has highlighted the health implications of digital technology: social media's adverse effect on mental health, the criminal exploitation of children online, and the increased risk of traffic collisions resulting from cellphone use, to name a few. And Deseret News reporters Lois Collins and Sarah Israelson-Hartley have compiled in-depth research on technology's impact on youths and relationships.
It's clear that digital technology is affecting everyone on nearly every level of physical and emotional well-being. Unfortunately, the trends are likely to continue without concerted countervailing efforts.
Parents feel constant pressure to give their children superlative opportunities — working hard to get them placed into the best schools and accepted to expensive extracurricular programs. But they would do well to remember that perhaps their best investment would come from simply putting their phone down and being a little more present.