Doctors’ Notes


Parenting and Media & Technology

What would your child say if you asked them this question…?

“Do you think I use my phone/tablet/computer too much?”

We talk a lot about the use of social media and technology as it relates to teenagers, recommending monitoring and responsibility. We’ve posted articles about the dangers of texting and driving. In a different but related vein, I’m increasingly concerned about the generation of children we’re raising that is watching us (“us” being their parents) connected to technology so much of the waking day. We all see it, and many of us have done it — parents on their phones while wheeling their toddler in a shopping cart at the store, texting while strolling the child through the zoo, checking email at stop lights or at the bus stop.

PhoneCheckDon’t get me wrong. Technology isn’t bad. Being able to answer emails, check the weather, check the school lunch menu, or access the Kids Plus Patient Portal (!) with just a few clicks does make life a whole lot easier. You’re not a horrible parent if your kid is playing at the park and you use the time to answer an email. Kids do. after all, need to learn to use technology to be a part of this world.

I wonder, though, what messages they get when we are more attentive to our devices than we are to them. What message did a little girl get when I recently saw her, all dressed up to watch a live performance of “Mary Poppins,” sitting next to her Dad, who spent the entire intermission scrolling through stock market updates?

Let me say that this Note is not intended to express judgment. Being a parent can be excruciatingly tiring and stressful, and darn it, sometimes it’s nice to have some mindless activity or get some adult interaction in the midst of it. Understood. This is just intended as an encouragement for all of us raising kids to look critically at the ways we consistently spend our time.

I think there will be two kinds of fall-out from our excessive use of technology around children. One will be the result our inattention has on their feelings of self-worth, importance, and security.  A child whose parents are frequently focused on technology while they’re also parenting will probably get the message that he/she is just not that interesting or important.

Kids notice when we aren’t really watching them jump into the pool or ride without training wheels or tie their shoes for the twentieth time. They pick up on the adult conversations we have, or don’t have, while we walk through the grocery store. A child who doesn’t start out with a strong sense of being loved and having worth will have a harder timeg oing through life.

The second impact relates to the example we’re setting for our kids. I’m sure you’ve been to a restaurant or out in the community and seen teenagers “socializing” — each glued tot heir individual phones. I once observed an entire table of high school students, out to dinner before the prom, every single one of them with their phone and played with them through the entire dinner.

Are we raising kids who will have an impaired ability to relate to others? At least in person? How will this impact their ability to interview well for a job, or having meaningful friendships or marriages? Are they even learning how to look someone in the eye when having a conversation? And what about the lack of silence or solitude that always-accessible technology leads to? So many young people today wouldn’t be comfortable even walking the dog without being plugged into something.

So. I challenge you to ask your kids the above question. I challenge you to pay attention to the ways you use technology. Take baby steps, perhaps. But take steps.

Here are a few to help you get started…

1. Put your phone in the glovebox while you’re driving.

2. Designate a “Tech-Free” Day (ok, maybe this isn’t a baby step…!)

3. Compartmentalize your tech time, setting aside a certain time (after the kids are in bed?) to reunite with your device.

4. Rethink what’s truly urgent. Many things we think can’t wait actually can.

5. Leave your phone in the car on your next family outing. Ok, so you might not be able to capture the photographic moment if your camera IS your phone. But maybe it would be refreshing to just live in the moment and not even worry about capturing it. (I just did this last Sunday- it was really freeing!)

6. Close your laptop when a loved one walks into the room

Have any other ideas? I’d love to hear them.

For more resources, fun stories, and videos, check out the Hands Free Mama Blog, and also the short film, I Forgot My Phone.

For some suggestions on how to create a family media use plan, see this excellent resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Dr. Amy Maddalena, a Kids Plus Doc since 2006.