A study published by the journal Child Development has taken a look at how parents' use of technology affects their children's behaviour, and has concluded that "technology-based interruptions in parent-child interactions" - a phenomenon known as "technoference" - could be associated with a greater incidence of poor behaviour on the part of children.
Almost half (48 per cent) of the parents in the study admitted to three daily incidents of technoference in their interactions with their kids, and the researchers say these seem to correlate with young children being more prone to whining, sulking, restlessness, frustration and outbursts of temper. (Coincidentally, these are also the behaviours displayed by adults who are confronted with slow Wi-Fi.)
It's something many parents will guiltily recognise: the six-year-old cheerfully stomping on toddlers at soft play while her father watches bids on eBay; the mother conducting a text conversation and grunting "Hang on!" when one of her offspring tries to launch into a monologue about an incident at school. Lots of us will also recognise what the authors term "absent presence" when using tech around our children, and will empathise with the study's subjects who admitted it made them "feel less effective in their parenting".
Older people are often particularly disquieted when they see parents distracted by screens, bewildered by the spectacle of toddlers staring into space on the bus while their responsible adults refresh Facebook. But the tension between what's good for children, what's good for adults and what's good for the family as a whole predates YouTube. My Gen X contemporaries will remember our parents' parallel quandaries about television: how much should kids be allowed to watch? Would exposure to Grange Hill make your child vulgar, or unemployable, or simply both? What level of televisual event - on a scale from "amusingly shaped vegetable on That's Life" to "World Cup final" - made it acceptable to have dinner in front of the box? Was it all right to rush the bedtime story because Hill Street Blues was about to start?
Mobile tech is a game-changer in its portability and an addictive short form, but the weakness for a bit of mindless entertainment is enduring. Perhaps we are particularly worried about the impact of modern tech because we're fascinated by the novelty. Much of my parenting revolves around engineering opportunities to sit down and read for half an hour, but no headline has ever told me I ought to spend less time with books.
Modern life, to paraphrase Blur, is busy, and light relief is human. The time consumed by feeding, clothing, housing, organising and paying for a family of dependants is time that cannot be spent meaningfully engaging with them one-on-one. I work from home, and my children's working day ends before mine. I feel bad that I can pay them only cursory attention when they come home, but my attention to the screen is the very thing that keeps the lights on. And while few parents would deny that it's important to listen to your toddler's conversational freestyling, or to answer a series of increasingly abstract questions about natural phenomena, until you begin to suspect your child is trolling you, the parent's need for downtime is valid too. We all eventually reach the point at which we either have half an hour of peace, or we'll have the screaming abdabs all over Sainsbury's.
Many parents would love to have more evidence-based guidance about tech and screens, if only so that we can stop feeling bad and do something constructive instead. It's fairly common for parents to limit their children's use of screens; perhaps we fall down in not seriously considering whether we could benefit from some restrictions ourselves.
This is defensiveness, of course. That's the problem with studies that tell us our behaviour is messing up our children's lives: the natural response is to furiously concoct a thousand reasons why it doesn't apply to you. In fairness to the study's authors, they emphasise the need for further studies - and they do include television in their definition. Many parents would love to have more evidence-based guidance about tech and screens, if only so that we can stop feeling bad and do something constructive instead. It's fairly common for parents to limit their children's use of screens; perhaps we fall down in not seriously considering whether we could benefit from some restrictions ourselves.
Rather than wandering around in a guilty fog while stabbing at a tiny computer, we could have an honest, whole-family assessment of the impact of screen time and agree on a more mindful approach involving regular unwired activities. After all, hurling the Scrabble board and several dictionaries out of the window is a bonding activity that people of all ages can enjoy.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Technoference alert: Is our tech addiction harming our kids?'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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