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We need to disconnect and reassure children we value them above our devices

Put down the phone: how ‘technoference’ impacts on parenting

Geraldine Walsh with daughter Allegra.

Working from home means my computer and my phone are effectively another limb. With every sound my phone makes, I react, probably a lot quicker than when my daughter is competing for my attention.

And a competition it seems to have become, which makes me sad, guilty and afraid of my intense connection, not always work-related, with the technology at my fingertips.

My distracted attention only became a revelation to me when my eldest, in the sternest of voices a small child can muster, ordered me to “put my phone down”, after repeated attempts to grab my attention. Finding myself in the category of a “tuned out” parent was disappointing and this wasn’t the first instance my child cried out for ordinary attention from her mother.

I made the decision to work from home so I could be with our kids. Bring them to school, make their lunches, plaster their knees. It’s a decision a lot of parents are making with the deadening cost of childcare and the logistics of combining a nine-to-five job with school days. But research suggests that despite being more physically in the home, we are not as emotionally attached to our children as technology gatecrashes the parent and child bubble.

In order for quality emotional relationships to develop our children need to feel valued and listened to

We may argue that life has changed, and technology has become forefront in most of our lives, but that is no excuse for not providing our children with the attention we naturally should be giving. Disconnecting ourselves from technology is vital for our children’s wellbeing as well as giving ourselves the necessary head space outside of technology. And a parent’s attention plays a large part in the cognitive and emotional development of our children.

“Consistent, positive interactions between parent and child provide the basis for secure attachments which provide a safe space in which children can develop,” says Dr Mary O’Kane, lecturer in psychology and early childhood with the Open University.

Emotional signals

A simple swipe of the phone to check a text or a quick scroll on Instagram breaks the emotional signals our children need for development, with the quality of these parent-child interactions suffering.

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“These interactions are very important for communication and language development. Without even being aware of it, we adopt ‘motherese’ when interacting with babies [a sing-song type of child-directed speech which helps children to develop their own language skills]. These interactions are fundamental to language development. Research in the UK has made links between parents distracted by technology and children starting school without the expected language and social skills for their age.”

And yet, despite knowing we are a distracted generation, we continue in this cycle of eyes on phones, ears half on our children, disrupting us from necessary, important interactions with our children.

“As we become more engaged with technology,” says Dr O’Kane, “we have less time for responding fully to our children, we are less likely to use ‘motherese’, and often our children will display more challenging behaviour as they try to get our attention. We call it ‘technoference’ – when the time we spend on devices interferes with positive interactions with our children. We know that the early years are vitally important for children’s development, and if parents are constantly distracted by technology, they are missing the everyday cues to interact with their children.”

Parental guilt

As my daughter’s angry, agitated and sad eyes begged me to divert my attention to her from my smartphone, I felt that pang of parental guilt, as the disconnection between myself and my daughter became wildly evident to me.

Dr O’Kane tells us that children who are securely attached are more confident in approaching new situations and have more resilience when facing life’s challenges. The secure attachment acts as a buffer to the stresses of life. It is the focused attention we give to our children which creates the strong characters we strive to raise.

“The EPPE Project in the UK,” she says, “has found that quality parent-child interactions, such as time spent reading or playing together, have a very positive impact in child outcomes. These positive interactions have more influence on a child’s development than material status, parental education or occupation. But it is important to remember that it is quality rather than quantity that is key.”

As technology connected parents, we are teaching our children that relating to others is secondary to the needs of our screens which appear more important and significant. Disconnecting is key but also uncharacteristic of our generation. Relearning our own social interactions as adults is necessary if we are to properly reconnect and react to our children.

“In order for quality emotional relationships to develop our children need to feel valued and listened to,” says Dr O’Kane, adding that the only real way to do this is to disconnect and reassure our children that we value them above our devices. “I think it is something we all struggle with, but even in the teenage years it is important that they know that we can put our connection with our children above our connection to our devices!”

Disconnecting at meal times, setting aside family time, and having device-free evenings, has a appreciable impact on the family unit and on our children’s development. “The value of this time spent interacting as a family is clear. This is a simple step that we can take to ensure that we have time each day spent communicating and interacting with our children. Without any interference from devices, our children are learning how to connect and communicate, to share, take turns, and engage with each other during these family interactions.”

Parenting, says, Dr O’Kane, is a balancing act and the quality of our interactions over the quantity is often more valuable.

“The most important thing to remember is that ‘good enough mothering’ is fine. Being distracted by our phones occasionally will not harm our children, in fact, being unavailable at times can make our children more resilient. However, it is all about trying to get the balance right and ensuring that we balance time spent on our phones with time for quality interactions when we make our children the focus of our attention.

“We don’t have to be perfect all the time, we are all guilty of spending time on our phones when we could be connecting with our children. The message is to try to achieve some form of balance.”

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