A piping hot meal sits invitingly at the table as a small family gathers to sit together after a long day. But, instead of cheerful banter, it’s the ‘tap-tap’ on the phones or a swipe for every morsel that goes into the mouth. Sounds familiar? You might just be living in a classic modern family. But, is this what we envision as the paragon of ‘family time’? The answer is, quite simply, no.
Yes, there is no arguing the extent to which technology has simplified our lives. We have tools today that our parents did not. Today’s scenario is like this - Can’t figure out how to deal with a behavioural issue in your child? Look it up on the Internet for professional tips. Need to rush your child to a doctor? Simply book an appointment online. Looking for a good school for your little one? You have hundreds of reviews and ratings just a tap and a swipe away!
However, the same world of technology has us hooked in a sinister way. Our dependency on gadgets keep us constantly engaged and our preoccupation with our virtual lives is taking us further away from our human interactions. Applied to the context of parenting, what we see today is a disconnect between a parent and a child - quality time that is being sacrificed at the altar of technology.
How this quality time is being sacrificed is evident through various research studies in the last couple of years.
- An anthropological study was conducted at the Boston Medical Center, by Dr Jenny Radesky and her colleagues, on patterns of mobile device usage by parents / caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. The study, which was published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in March 2014, shed some light on this subject. It observed caregivers, eating with one or more children at restaurants, to understand the degree of usage of this gadget and the corresponding effect of such usage on caregiver-child interactions. The findings showed that 73% of the caregivers were using their devices during the meal. Other important findings included the degree of absorption of the adult with the mobile phone, the lack of response to children’s bid to attract attention and, in some cases, even harsh responses towards children.
- A global study conducted by AVG Technologies, in 2015, examined children’s perceptions of parents’ mobile phone usage by surveying 6,000 children (ages 8-13). Disturbingly, about 54% of the children surveyed felt that their parents spent too much time on their smartphones and 32% stated that they felt unimportant when their parents were busy with their phones.
- Psychologist and author of ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age’, Catherine Steiner-Adair, interviewed 1,000 children (ages 4-18), as part of the research for her book. She found that across age groups, children had very negative emotional associations with their parent’s cell phones. While some children confessed to feeling sad, angry or lonely, others took to hiding or throwing away their parents’ phone (even flushing it down the toilet!). The one common message was that children felt that mobile phones were an intrusion into their relationships with their parents.
Not now! I’m busy!
As illustrated in various studies, it is evident that parents who are always busy with their cell phones are likely to have more negative interactions with their children. So, parents who are busy tapping away on their phones are more likely to get irritated and angry with their children for any interruptions.
There is even a scientific explanation for this: While texting or typing, the brain senses an urgency to finish the task at hand. This urgency translates into an escalation of stress levels, especially, since no one stops at one text or a single message through mail. When interrupted from this task, the stress levels cause us to become irritable and impatient. For children, parents constantly shushing them, making little or no eye contact and staying continuously engaged with their gadgets translates into a feeling of being neglected. The children feel unimportant and unloved.
Giving an expert perspective on this subject, Dr Nithya Poornima, Assistant Professor, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services, NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) Bengaluru, opines that gadgets can be highly addictive and, therefore, be a serious cause for concern. “There is an inherent risk when you use these gadgets. Many people feel more connected to both people as well as work, when they are on their gadgets. But, what they fail to understand is that it takes them away from the present moment and, thereby, their ability or resources to respond to the child’s needs in the most appropriate manner is elsewhere.”
Emphasing on the need to spend quality time with your children, Dr Gittanjali Saxena, a Mumbai-based counsellor says, “In many cases, parents are not even aware of what is happening in their children’s life. Because of parents’ preoccupation with gadgets, behavioural issues will come to light quite late. For children to grow into well-rounded individuals, for them to develop confidence and healthy self-esteem, for them to know that their parents love them and will always be there for them, they need to receive a substantial amount of attention from their parents.”
Validating the stance of how new-age parents are always engrossed with technology, Vasundhara Reddy, an HR professional and mother to a four-year-old from Hyderabad, says, “When I think about my 'parent fail' moment, I always think back to how my son, when asked to imitate the members of his family, 'played' me as being busy with my phone. Apart from being terribly embarrassed, I also realised that I had been often ignoring him in favour of my phone. I have been making a conscious effort, since then, to reduce my on-screen time.”
Like Vasundhara, all parents should take efforts to reduce their time with gadgets.
Gadgets: the new age babysitters
How often is it that we see a crying toddler being handed a pacifier in the form of a video or app on a smartphone? Says Dr Nithya Poornima, “Gadgets have become the new-age medium of pacification or engagement for a child. Parents often give them to children to keep them busy. It forms an interpersonal barrier because both adult and child are then relying on this technology to stay engaged instead of interacting with each other. It may still serve a purpose when it is used in short spurts of time, as when done consciously by a parent who says, ‘I am going to be on a call for the next ten minutes and during that time you may play on the tablet’. Now, that is better than something that is unconscious and becomes a habit. Like children who cannot eat or drink without a gadget because they’ve been conditioned to do so.”
Such gadget-dependence is really sad, since infants and toddlers depend heavily on face-to-face interactions to learn language, expression and behaviour. The absence of such an interaction could hamper healthy physical and mental development in children. In August 2015, the British politician Tristram Hunt, who was at that time the Shadow Education Secretary, opined that the effect of a parent tapping away at an iPhone instead of interacting with her child is no less harmful than smoking around children. He also expressed concerns about the inability of children, who had just been enrolled in schools, to speak properly due to a lack of communication with their parents during their early years.
Now, why do these things happen? All because of gadgets having replaced the many activities that parents should be doing with their children.
Lead and they will follow
As parents, we are responsible for modelling the kind of behaviour we want our children to emulate. However, our gadget etiquette is anything but a yardstick for our children to learn from. Those of us who are always busy with our phones are more likely to be swiping off during meals, mumbling into headphones while driving and even tapping away as we walk. We avoid personal interactions with family and friends, falling prey to the ‘constant networking’ illusion that our handheld devices provide us.
Remember, your children won’t be children forever. Enjoy every minute of their growing years. Show them that you love them every single day. Your phone won’t miss you, but your children will.
As parents, we are responsible for modelling the kind of behaviour we want our children to emulate.
Step up to the digital ‘diet’
Whether we like it or not, the cell phone has become a necessity in this fast-paced world. As with anything, moderation is the key to making it work for you. Here are a few tips to cut back on your screen-time and spend more time with your family.
Make the house a ‘no-phone’ zone: Set aside one small area where phones are allowed and leave it there after you’re done. This way, you are truly hands-free around your home. Your mind and senses are open to movements around you.
Make family time truly gadget-free: This includes mealtime, play-time and other family bonding time. Just turn your phone to silent mode and place it on the sideboard.
Set family rules: Rules work better when they apply to everyone. So, get your spouse/partner and your child to adhere to the ‘diet’.
Track your phone usage: Most phones allow you to track your phone usage. Set a time limit for yourself and be strict about following it.
Cut down on your digital life: You know that clutter of apps on your phone. Well, take a deep breath and delete as many of them as possible. The more the number of applications running on your phone, the more the temptation to procrastinate. While you are at it, turn off the notifications.
Our dependency on gadgets keep us constantly engaged and our preoccupation with our virtual lives is taking us further away from our human interactions.
You may also like: