What Happens When We Turn to Smartphones to Escape Our Kids?

I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it.
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We see parents on their phones at playgrounds, at restaurants, in cars, seated around dinner tables, on mass transit, on vacation—everywhere. For about five years, I've researched what happens when parents are on their phones, with findings that you might expect: When parents' attention is directed at a smartphone, we talk to our children less, miss their bids for attention, overreact to their annoying interruptions, and think less clearly about what their behavior means. Some cities and municipalities have begun public-service campaigns to increase parents' awareness of the toll their heavy technology use may be taking on child development and well-being. A German boy even organized a rally to protest modern parents' preoccupation with technology.

There's good reason to want parents to talk, play, and relate to their children more positively and sensitively. Research suggests that a high proportion of child social-emotional and academic success can be attributed to positive parenting and secure attachment. We don't need to be perfect parents, responsive to our children's needs all the time, but we do need to be "good enough," as the pediatrician Donald Winnicott put it.

What this approach translates to in practical terms is that we need to be understanding and responsive to our children's needs more often than not, and when we mismatch with our kids, we must try to fix things. We must try to learn from our parenting mistakes and understand how our kids' brains are wired, how they think and feel, and help them grow during moments of challenge and distress.

What are the implications of smartphones—these little handheld computers holding our work, social life, entertainment, and seemingly everything else—for being a "good enough" parent? When I interviewed 35 parents of young children from diverse backgrounds about their technology use in 2014, they didn't think they had a handle on it yet. They described being tired, bored, and using their smartphones to seek stimulation, adult contact, or a laugh. They described wanting to escape the daily drudgery of parenting. They described wanting their kids to use technology and be quiet so that they could have some peace (or use technology themselves). Across the board, parents described the sense that it's harder to read their child's mind, decipher frustrating behavior, or multi-task between their device-absorbed brain and their children's demands.

Yet many still felt compelled to dive back into their devices.

Let's take a moment to think about interacting with a smartphone versus interacting with your own young child. Smartphone user interfaces are designed to please, with sensory experiences (the crisp sound of an email swishing away!) and machine learning-based feedback meant to cater to our preferences. They provide positive feedback and can induce an immersive mental state of ''flow.'' Children do not always provide these things. With their difficult-to-read behavior, unpredictable developmental surges and regressions, needs for soothing or problem-solving, and uncanny similarities to the other triggering people in one's family (e.g., mothers, ex-husbands), children are not always rewarding. And understanding them and helping them grow is one of our greatest challenges.

To be fair, smartphones are not always fun either, but they are engaging. They are designed with habit-forming rewards, social feedback, and persuasive features that tap into our subconscious. They also contain our work, our ideas, and the projection of our self reflected by the reactions of others. This stable sense of self can be worn away by the stresses of early parenthood. Our executive functions, also worn away in the exhausted brain of a parent of young children, become free when they're carried along on a social media feed, aroused by content posted by (brilliant) friends who agree with our politics and values, and intellectually engaged (just enough) by the bite-sized servings of logic and novelty in mobile content.

In comparison, it takes a lot of mental effort to read a child's mind. We have to look at body language, pay attention to both the salient aspects (e.g., throwing food) and subtext (e.g., is this a developmental stage of independence testing?) of behavior, and remember prior patterns of behavior and how they might relate to this moment (e.g., how did I react the last time he threw food at me?).

On the other hand, what if we peek into someone else's mind and don't like what we see? What if it's too distressed, negative, or just opaque? This is an important opportunity to teach children awareness of their emotions and how to handle them, but when faced with a moody child, parents sometimes want to disengage into the less triggering, more rewarding space of technology. This disengagement may influence child emotional outcomes in the long-term: In one of our studies documenting the technology behavior of 183 couples over six months, we found that parents who reported more stressful child behavior were more likely to retreat into their phones during parent-child activities, which in turn contributed to greater child behavior problems.

We are only 11 years into this smartphone experiment, so I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it. Perhaps society is in an early developmental stage with smart technology, with its own set of colic and tantrums. By reflecting on technology and early relationships—and how hard it is to think deeply, communicate non-verbally, or understand each other's minds when our own minds are elsewhere—perhaps we will emerge from this developmental stage with new insight and values that will inform the design of smarter phones.

As parents, we can act, for our own good and as role models. Recognize when we've picked the phone up to escape family interactions or out of design-induced habit—and put it back down. Learn to tolerate our children's distress and the distress it elicits in us. Single-task on someone else's mind.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Generation Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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