Sometimes we read things that hit a nerve, and although the truth can set us free, it can also make us feel really uncomfortable. A recent NewYork Times article, “The Risks Of Parenting While Plugged In”, did just that. While I’m detached from my iPhone more often than not, I do spend much of the day glued to the computer, an absorption that often overflows into time that used to be spent with my children. New to the hypnotic pull of the internet, I’m still struggling to find balance.
“The Risks Of Parenting While Plugged In” reports findings from five years of studies of the effects of the parental use of technology on their children. According to Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, “Over and over, kids raised the same three examples of feeling hurt and not wanting to show it when their mom or dad would be on their devices instead of paying attention to them: at meals, during pickup after either school or an extracurricular activity, and during sports events.”
Reactions to the article seem to fall into two camps. One acknowledges a concern and recognizes the obvious downside of our cyber obsession – It is tough to unplug, and more challenging than ever to give our children undivided attention.
The less concerned camp dismisses the study as yet another parental guilt trip – children have always wanted our attention and parents have always been distracted by other things. It’s good for children to know their parents have lives that don’t revolve exclusively around them.
Although I agree with the less concerned point-of-view (and I don’t think parents deserve guilt-trips, ever), I think we’d have to be buried in denial not to notice that we are dealing with something new and vastly different here. This is not mom and dad working in their home office, doing housework, reading a book, chatting on the phone at home, or watching their favorite TV show. This is, in Turkle’s words, “ a device, that from the child’s point of view, can take a parent away from any conversation or activity, at any time, and that always seems to be given precedence.“
I recently saw not one, but two moms walking with their young children along the beach in the hazy summer sunshine. The kids looked out towards the ocean as their mothers held their heads down and away from them, trying to tune out the ocean noise so they could concentrate on their phone calls.
Now, maybe they were CEOs playing hooky to get their kids to the beach, but couldn’t entirely leave work behind. Maybe their professional lives demanded they make calls and check email wherever and whenever. Or maybe they were making social plans or chatting with friends. Regardless, I don’t judge them, but don’t tell me nothing’s changed! Phone conversations, notes, emails, and a parent’s work are not any more important now than they used to be. The difference is that technology now allows us to bring our work and social lives onto the beach, the playground, or to a birthday party. Now, because we can, we allow them to intrude everywhere.
It is true that children have always wanted endless amounts of their parents’ undivided attention and can seem impossible to satiate. The toddler who interrupts your phone call after you’ve spent an hour playing with him never offers, “Oh, that’s right…sorry…you paid a lot of attention to me today already.”
But this study affirms that our children are especially desirous of our attention at certain sensitive times: when we reconnect after a separation, when they are performing or exerting themselves (like on the soccer field) and during meals. When parents text on the car ride home, check email at the soccer game, or are glued to their laptops during social or intimate activities like mealtimes, they aren’t providing the connectivity a child needs.
Physical proximity to a loved one is not enough for any of us. Even our newborn infants know the difference between the distracted parent and one who is really with them. Our spouses, friends and older family members might ask us to turn off our devices. As the study shows, our children probably won’t. Our babies can’t.
But this is not about judgment, guilt or blaming technology. As Turkle writes, “What is important is not to get defensive about our compelling devices. We are not going to throw them away. We are going to put them in their place.”
Honest acknowledgement of this issue can only make our lives better. Since reading the article, I’ve already become more conscious of setting some new boundaries, carving out more sacred time with my kids. The effort it takes me to unplug is making me value the time with my children even more — it feels all the more special.
Modern technology is unquestionably a blessing. And its biggest gift of all is the realization that life’s best moments happen when we can put it away.
This commenter, a grandmother, nails it: “In my own life, I try to think of solutions – but then I hear another email come in. I am so curious that I can hardly resist peeking. But I have found that it takes courage to PUT LIMITS ON MY OWN BEHAVIOR and schedule activities that require leaving the technical devices out of sight and mind. It feels good to be wholly in sync with the person next to me. It feels good to read a book without interruption. It feels good to walk in the park without hearing a “ping” in my pocket.”
For a personal post about children and attention, please read: The Easily Forgotten Gift.
You might also like Sherry Turkle’s fascinating new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age