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Is digital distraction just another modern day parenting beat-up?

The evidence is still emerging about the psychological cost of mothers and fathers being distracted by phones and tablets.


This article by Kelly-Ann Allen was first published in Psychlopaedia. A link to the original article can be found here.


The evidence is still emerging about the psychological cost of mothers and fathers being distracted by phones and tablets


As an educational and developmental psychologist and mother of two, I took great interest in a recent episode of Luo Bao Bei, an animated cartoon series featuring an endearing 7-year-old protagonist. The episode, Mother and Daughter Day, tackled the complex issue of parental digital distraction. In this episode, LBB’s mother is continuously distracted by her mobile phone as she unsuccessfully tries to balance her work commitments with her intention to spend the day with her daughter. When a globally recognised cartoon touches on one of the most complex, emerging concerns in modern parenting, the issue is clearly mainstream.  It is not just an issue about children, it is also an issue for children themselves.


Children’s need for attention

In a study that examined children’s perception of parental phone use, the most common theme to emerge children’s need for their parents to be present. That is, to pay attention and put down their phone, especially when their child was trying to tell them something important. A review of the literature on mobile device use and the impact on parent-child relationships found that children competed for their parents’ attention against the device and they were more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour.


Too often, when it comes to screen time, the habits of children and adolescents are placed under the microscope, but less frequently evaluated are the screen habits of adults. After all, evidence suggests that a child’s screen time use hinges on that of their parents.


The lure of the screen

In the fictional case of LBB, I can only assume that tact had LBB’s mother working on her mobile phone rather than updating her Facebook page and Snapchatting. However, recent research tells us that parents are spending up to seven hours a day on screen outside of work, yet most parents report being good media role models for their children.

As a parent with two children under the age of 4, I am not alone in wrestling the challenges of work, family, and social expectations in the face of new technology. While the research on digital distraction is only in infancy, parents are being warned to take heed of research findings on digital distraction that range from increased problem behaviour to lowered child-parent connection. They should also know that empirical evidence is limited and longitudinal research is yet to be conducted.


Are modern parents really more distracted?

People often hark back to the ‘good old days’ pre-mobile phones when parenting was evaluated mostly by a sample size of 1: “I turned out alright”. It is worth considering that mobile technology, such as smart phones, afford parents more opportunities for flexible work arrangements which allow them to balance multiple roles simultaneously and spend more time around their children. The mother at the playground on her mobile phone busily responding to emails in order to manage her small business, is able to create a work life outside of an office and be mostly available to her children.


Parents may be working in paid employment more than in decades past but are also flush with the spoils of modern living: running water, electric appliances, heating, cars, and even home-delivered meals. Surely the parents of yesteryear were distracted in a non-digital sense by larger families and heavier domestic workloads. Our parent’s generation and the generations before them may not have been digitally distracted, but were distracted from their children nonetheless.


Judgement-laden criticism

Digital distraction may well be just the latest of many criticisms on modern-day parenting.  Do we need to be more digitally disciplined or is there unspoken hierarchy of acceptable distraction, where domestic duties prevail, work is considered a necessary burden and parenting in your jocks on your Xbox does not stack up very well? Anyone who has been a stay at home parent knows that running a household can be one big distraction from our children. Sure, we can involve children in token household tasks, but at the end of the day, sometimes children have to wait for our attention. And that is a pretty okay life skill in its own right.


The research literature is yet to yield a conclusive understanding of the effects of digital distraction in parents. Most parents would like to be less digitally distracted and it is unrealistic to suggest that parents should avoid using mobile devices in the presence of children, however perhaps the digital distraction issue calls for a serious rethink about the socially imposed pressures relating to technology, such as  needing to respond to messages and emails instantly. Parents should always endeavour to model good screen time habits to children and setting personal boundaries around phone use in the presence of other people (not just children) is going to not only be good social etiquette but better for society as a whole.

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