I’m sitting in McDonald’s, having lunch, and chaotic children rampage all around me.
“Get your butt back to the table!” barks one harried mom to her young son, who has scampered out of his seat to join her in line.
“Dad, can I have Coke instead of juice? Please, please, please?” one little girl pleads with her dad. When her dad doesn’t give her what she wants, she stomps her feet and lets out a cry that turns every head in the restaurant their way.
And all around me, parents struggle trying to get kids to sit still and eat their food. The kids stand in their seats to stare at other kids in the restaurant. They play with their food instead of eating it. They often use their “outdoor” voices instead of their indoor ones. They squabble with siblings, say blunt, rude statements to passing strangers and just can’t behave. They’re kids, after all.
Watching all these families around me, I don’t blame parents for just taking a moment to slump in their seats over French fries and check their phones. Parenting is hard work, and they’re exhausted and need a break. And just for a few minutes, they can relax their vigilance and just take a moment from the stresses of parenting, thanks to their iPhones.
But those moments add up, and in most of the families I watch, moments turn into minutes — minutes spent staring at their phone or tablets instead of minding their children. These minutes are then filled by children indulging in even more rowdy behavior, often designed to get their parents’ attention. Trying to get his dad’s attention from his iPhone, one little boy even knocks his shake onto the ground, making a huge mess in the middle of a crowded floor.
Are these kids spoiled? Is this just an epidemic of bad parenting? Or is it just a bad idea to take your kids out to lunch altogether? I don’t know the story behind all these different families I’m watching, so I’m loathe to pass judgment.
But as it turns out, when you direct your attention to a touchscreen instead of at your child, you’re not just modeling how to use phones — you’re also depriving kids of a key resource they need in order to learn and grow into functional adults: your attention.
Most hand-wringing over kids and technology focuses on how children use devices. Kids love anything with a touchscreen, and could happily tap away for hours on apps, games and mobile entertainment. But we’re worried about the effects on them, and wonder if too much screen time will slice-and-dice their attention spans, change their brains, hamper their social skills, disrupt their sleep and affect their learning.
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends kids only play with devices for an hour a day, though we know they’re often on them longer — and we fret about what that does to them. “Today’s children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices,” the AAP said in a report. “Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”
But we rarely focus on how parents’ use of technology impacts kids. If parents spend much of their own time with the faces buried in touchscreens, how does that affect their kids?
Some parents might think “just a quick glance” isn’t enough to have an impact, but those quick glances add up. But a recent study of families in fast-food restaurants, published in AAP’s journal Pediatrics, showed that 70 percent of parents were distracted by their devices during their meal, absorbed in their touchscreens more than what their children were doing and saying.
Researchers studied families having a quick meal at fast-food restaurants observed that most parents spent more time looking at devices rather than their children — they would spend minutes staring into their devices’ screen, look up for 1-2 seconds to check on their children, and then spend more minutes with their device.
This distraction often led to a significant deterioration of the kids’ behavior: children complained, threw tantrums and misbehaved, even throwing food at their parents, according to the study. And yet the parents often barely managed to look up — or when they engaged with their kids’ bad behavior, they would reprimand the children and then go right back to their device.
Is this just a case of poor role modeling? It may appear that way to an annoyed bystander, but there’s a deeper psychological reason why children get so upset when their parents don’t pay attention to them. It doesn’t have to do with being self-centered or difficult. Children need their parents’ attention to feel safe, acknowledged, thrive and grow into functional adults. When you persistently direct your attention to your device instead of your kid, you deprive them of a major resource they need.
Parenting is more than just providing basic needs like food and shelter. A child who thrives in life requires more in order to grow up smart, healthy and happy. Babies need to be held and touched, for instance, or else they have trouble gaining necessary weight. They need to be talked to in order to develop rich vocabularies and important language skills. They need to be picked up when they’re crying, which gives them a sense of safety that enables them to grow into curious, confident, independent toddlers eager to explore the world.
And — most importantly — they need attention. And not just the attention that comes from feeding and caring for physical needs — they need to be looked at, listened to, understood and reciprocated. When a baby smiles, the parent smiles back. When a baby nods and laughs, so does mom and dad. Psychologists call this “affect mirroring.” Urie Bronfenbrenner, co-founder of Head Start, also calls this process “ping pong.” There is no shortcut with this kind of ping-pong: you must literally put in the face time with a child.
Why is this important? These interactions lay the foundation for communication, as well as forming relationships. Children begin mirroring parents’ faces and expressions almost as soon as they’re born. One of the few ways infants can control their environment is through their gaze, so they stare into their caretakers’ eyes, looking for a reaction. When they get a mirrored response, the baby feels acknowledged and secure, which helps them in their social skills and future self-esteem.
The importance of affect mirroring can’t be underestimated. In a set of famous University of Miami experiments from the 1970s, child development researchers discovered that babies become significantly distressed when caretakers stop responding to them with facial expressions. After three minutes of “interaction” with a non-responsive expressionless mother, according to lead researcher Edward Tronick, the baby “rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”
Tronick’s experiments have been replicated repeatedly by other teams of psychologists, and the results hold true, no matter if the baby has Down’s syndrome, autism, or even grew up in a different culture. If you don’t reciprocate a baby’s gaze and give some sign that you acknowledge its presence and emotions, the child grows anti-social and withdrawn. Children, no matter what gender, race or culture, need your concrete attention.
A child won’t be scarred for life by a few instances of emotional coldness, but if it becomes a persistent pattern, kids often grow up feeling insecure and uncertain of their fundamental safety and confidence. A continual lack of regular response to children’s expressions and conversation damages what psychologists call “attachment style,” or how they bond to their caretakers.
Some children are insecurely attached to parents whose attention, affection and care are inconsistent — they might be overwhelmed or too stressed, or simply too distracted. Kids in this situation then seek out constant reassurance and contact that often result in “smothering” in the future. Or they go to the other way, and become too independent, not allowing for intimacy, trust and interdependence needed for relationships like marriage.
Kids who are securely attached, though, strike a good balance between independence and trust — they’re able to explore more in the world, because they know they have a safe, secure, consistent emotional base to return to.
Attachment is the foundation for kids’ basic sense of safety, confidence and security, and has a major impact on how they relate to others, form relationships and experience the world in the future. It even affects how they will communicate, even in texts and e-mail.
While a few instances of ignoring a kid by staring at your iPhone won’t hurt them, a consistent pattern of simply not looking at them can affect them, particularly if they are younger. An emotionally absent parent whose attention is focused more on their apps or games than their kids doesn’t just teach bad manners or an over-reliance on technology — kids learn, on some level, that the other person isn’t as interesting or important than their device.
Parenting is tough work — often the toughest task that anyone will undertake. It is a lifelong project, and doesn’t stop when kids grow up. And there is no shortage of opinions over what constitutes good vs. bad parenting, as any glance in the comments section of a successful mommy blog will reveal.
But technology is a powerful force, and for many of us, it’s also become an auto-pilot one. Devices are insidious and have a way of creeping into even the deepest recesses of our lives — our bedtimes and our love lives, for instance — without us being aware of it. It’s not necessarily our fault — device makers, app designers and others design mobile technology to be both convenient, easy and addictive. But that means we need to bring greater mindfulness into how we use them, particularly around those who learn from us how to manage them. The fast-food lunch study is not about negligent parents — it’s about how it’s easy for us to go on automatic with our devices, and the real effects it has on others’ behaviors.
During my afternoon at McDonald’s, I attempted to replicate, at my scale, that fast-food family experiment. I watched 21 different families over the course of an afternoon, and paid close attention to how long parents were distracted by devices vs. how long they looked at their children.
In all the families but one, parents took out mobile devices to look at them at some point during the meal. And in over 75 percent of them, sadly, parents spent more time looking at their devices than paying attention to their children. And the longer the parent looked away, the more their children misbehaved — and yes, one child even knocked over his drink towards his parent in order to get her attention. These children didn’t act this way because they were spoiled, but because they wanted their parents’ attention during a time when a family most often connects to one another. And yes, very often when a child misbehaved, a parent would simply hand over their smartphone or tablet, pacifying their kid with it.
I don’t think these parents were bad parents by any means. And if you asked them, I don’t think they would’ve realized they spent more time on their phones or iPads than with their kids. I don’t think any parents whips out an iPhone and makes a conscious intention to ignore their child at all. Most parents love and cherish their children — but are also overextended and overwhelmed in our modern world.
I don’t want to add to the guilt trips that characterizes modern parenting — just nudge ourselves to become mindful of the often unconscious way we use devices in our daily lives. You might have to consciously create a policy to put away your phone during mealtimes, or carve out a few minutes for iPhone time at the end of a meal, and not at the beginning or middle of it. Even if your kids are well-behaved, they’re still watching you, picking up cues on what it means to be a happy, successful human being — and that includes how we incorporate technology into our lives.
We all know it’s easy to lose track of time when you’re on a mobile device — only to suddenly look up and realize how much time has passed. We just want to be careful that when we look up from our devices, we don’t suddenly realize how much our kids have grown — and grown into strangers during the process. The children I observed will be part of a generation that communicates more over FaceTime than phone one day — but there is no shortcut to real, actual face time in establishing a secure, solid relationship based on loving attention and understanding. ♦