Parenting in the Age of Digital Distraction
We’re distracted. Not by work, chores, or social lives, as perhaps our parents might have been when we were young, but by something more insidious that is changing parenting as we’ve known it for the past few generations. A growing body of research highlights the rift: As children, we did not have to compete with a little vibrating box for attention, but our kids do. And the impact on them isn’t pretty.
Digital distraction is different from vintage distraction
Parents been distracted since the beginning of time, whether to hunt or gather, or have a martini. But digital distraction is different, and more insidious; the devices we’re using are specifically developed to grab our attention and keep it. The most popular apps are successful because they tap into a reward mechanism in our brains, according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical and consulting psychologist at Harvard University, and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Steiner-Adair describes how we get a hit of dopamine, the happy hormone, when we engage with our devices, whether it’s liking an Instagram post or clearing an email inbox. It’s what keeps us coming back to our devices, compulsively.
And unlike, say, TV in the 50s, or mobile phones in the 90s, the technology of today has made our digital experiences real-time and more addictive than ever.
“The companies that produce these devices and platform are savvier than they were, employing behavioral experts to make sure their products are as difficult to resist as possible,” says Dr. Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business, and author of the new book Irresistible.
In other words, we are living in an age when the makers of our devices and entertainment are specifically creating them to be as distracting, addictive, and disruptive as possible.
You are probably addicted, even if you think you’re not
Addiction is defined by persistent, compulsive use of something known by the user to be harmful. Most of us realize how persistent our device usage is: A recent survey by Tata Communications showed that people in the U.S., Europe, and Asia spend an average of more than five hours a day on the Internet, and 64% worry when they don’t have access. So we are using our devices, and relying on them – but why is that bad?
Dr. Alter says the answer to that question is personal. “Has your relationship with tech diminished your well-being in some respect? Has it weakened some of your social ties? Does it get between you and your loved ones and friends? Does it make it harder for you to work efficiently? Does it lead you to spend too much money, or too much time on the couch? If the answer is yes to one of these questions, you’re probably one of the fifty percent of people around the world with some form of tech addiction.”
Even if you’re not, a problem persists because our brains are terrible at multi-tasking. We are actually hard-wired to do better if we’re focused on one thing, and when we’re faced with many, our brains get overwhelmed. Technology consultant Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention” to describe how being inundated with multiple stimuli at once actually serves to split our concentration on any one thing — including our kids.
Which means that when we’re engrossed in our devices, we’re either not really paying attention to the people around us, or we are, but in a half-hearted, disengaged way. And the research supports the idea that this perpetual disengagement is impacting our inter-personal relationships. Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows that even the mere presence of a device in a room lessens the feeling of emotional connection and communication between family members.
And your kids feel it
Kids are keenly aware that they are competing for their parents’ precious moments of undivided attention, and they know when their parents are distracted.
A June 2015 study by AVG Technologies surveyed more than 6,000 children, ages 8 to 13, from eight countries, across four continents. Fifty-four percent of the kids thought their parents spent too much time on their phones, and 32 percent of children felt unimportant when their moms and dads were distracted by their phones.
Steiner-Adair interviewed more than 1,000 kids from the ages of 4 to 18 for her study, and she cites as the most surprising finding “the consistency with which children — whether they were 4 or 8 or 18 or 24 — talked about feeling exhausted and frustrated and sad or mad trying to get their parents’ attention, competing with computer screens or iPhone screens or any kind of technology.”
This might be easy to write off in the moment — until something major gets missed.
“We get a little dopamine hit when we accomplish another email — check this, check that. And when a child is waiting by or comes into your room and it’s one of those mini-moments… [you won’t know if] they’re coming with something really important,” she notes.
But perhaps most serious is the effect our devices have on parent-child attachment. This lack of connection is distressing for children, who are hardwired to look for responsiveness and engagement from their caregivers. The ability to perceive distraction starts as early as the baby years. One study showed that distracted parental attention may sometimes have detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially their ability to process pleasure.
Dana Suskind, a surgeon, researcher, and founder of the Thirty Million Words campaign, cites studies that have show babies become distressed when their mothers suddenly go from being responsive to unresponsive (called the “still-face paradigm”).
“It’s not just the total amount of attention that’s the key,” she says. “It’s that responsiveness.”
Tuning out can be distressing for anyone, she notes, babies or adults. So muttering a half-hearted response to a child while starting at a screen is demonstrably different than having an engaged, face-to-face interaction, and may even be deeply unsettling to a child looking for a caregiver connection.
As a generation of parents is perpetually distracted by machines designed engross them, a generation of children may be missing the responsiveness and human engagement they naturally crave and require. What that will do to their ability to connect with the world around them remains to be seen; some experts hypothesize tomorrow’s adults will have less capacity to empathize. But if we can recognize the power of digital distraction, we may be able to resist the pull. And by the time our kids are grown, there may be a separate section in the airport for device use, and we’ll stroll by, wondering how we ever felt drawn to such a disgusting habit.