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Parents’ absorption in mobile devices can take a toll on kids

Michelle Lauder (left) and Susan Kane with their 6-year-old daughter, Adar, carve out family time away from computer screens.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Every other weeknight, it’s Marc Kaufman’s turn to read to his two young sons. The Roslindale dad sets himself on the couch with Max, 6, and Theo, 3. Every now and then, a red light flashes on his BlackBerry, indicating a new e-mail. A moment of palpable tension follows: Does he check the message now and risk feeling compelled to respond, or wait until he’s put the kids to bed?

This scenario plays out to some degree for many parents. The same mobile devices that make it possible to check e-mail, look up information, or just take a break to browse Facebook can also divert attention from special moments, often without our realizing it.

For many parents, like Kaufman, work is the driving factor. A founder of ScienceSites, a nonprofit committed to building websites for researchers, he may need to troubleshoot if a site’s gone down or get back to West Coast clients before their workday ends. While his sons are used to him checking to see who messages are from, he says it’s deciding whether it can wait that can cause a fuss.


“There’s a lot of, ‘Hang on just a second’ while I type out a quick e-mail,” says Kaufman, 45.

Much has been made of kids’ use of devices and how much screen time is too much. Far less has been said about parents as the offenders. That doesn’t mean parents don’t think about it or worry how it may impact their kids: Many do. As a friend and parent lamented when I told her about this story, whether you’re “wanting to finish that one quick e-mail, set up a play date, or read the newspaper, it all looks like you are doing the same thing — staring at your phone and ignoring them.”

Of course, parents have always had to multitask and to split their attention. But mobile devices seem to exert a unique pull. There’s always the possibility some juicy bit of news is waiting, or one important e-mail, or one more work task to be knocked off the list.

If it happens often enough, parents’ absorption in devices in front of kids can take a toll. Kids depend on face-to-face interactions with parents for key aspects of their development, says Dr. Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. If parents seem unavailable, kids can get distressed. They may even stop trying to compete with devices for their attention.


“Young kids’ brains are really wired to seek out interaction with their parents,” Radesky says. “For example, when faced with a new situation, they will look at their parents to see their reactions, which helps them gauge how they should react and also helps them make sense of the experience.”

“Young kids’ brains are really wired to seek out interaction with their parents,” said Dr. Jenny RadeskY, assistant professor of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a study published in the journal Pediatrics last year, Radesky and colleagues observed 55 groups of young children and caregivers eating at fast-food restaurants. Forty of the caregivers used their devices during the meal, some almost continuously. Kids’ attempts to get the adults’ attention were sometimes ignored, and some adults who were focused on their devices reacted harshly. One woman kicked a child’s foot under the table; another pushed a boy’s hands away when he tried lifting her face from looking at her tablet.

Parents’ device use can also send a message to kids that whoever or whatever is on the other end matters more than they do, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist based in Chestnut Hill and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.”

Steiner-Adair, who also consults with schools, interviewed more than 1,000 kids for her book and says they used the same adjectives to describe their feelings about their parents’ preoccupation with phones and screens: “sad,” “mad,” “lonely,” “frustrated.”


Younger children “don’t understand the lost boundary between work and home,” she says. “At the park, if Mom or Dad is pushing a swing and on their phone at the same time, the child may think, ‘I’m boring,’ or at the least, less interesting than what’s happening on the phone.”

While older kids understand that their parents may need to use their devices for work, many resent it intruding on family time. One 13-year-old Steiner-Adair interviewed recalled his father texting from the ski lift during a family outing.

There is also the matter of modeling behavior. “You knew which kids understood the word ‘hypocrite,’ because they would use it to describe their parents,” she says. “They’d say, ‘my parents say don’t text and drive, but then they text and drive. Or, they say not to take calls during dinner, but they take calls then.’”

Setting rules around device use can help parents find balance. Radesky, for instance, tries to wait until her kids, ages 5 and 1½, have gone to bed, and says that many of the parents she’s interviewed do the same. Other parents allow themselves to check their personal e-mail or Facebook intermittently in front of their kids, but leave more stressful or taxing tasks, like answering work e-mail, until the kids are asleep.

Times that offer opportunities for conversation, such as car rides to and from school, should be tech-free, Steiner-Adair adds. Same goes for coming home from work. “Don’t just say a quick ‘hi’ and disappear to check your e-mail,” she says. “Come home with the expectation that you’re going to be spend time with your family.”


Some parents use other occasions to set boundaries between their tech use and family time. Waltham resident Susan Kane carved out technology-free time by starting to observe Shabbat, which in her household means, among other things, no electronics from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

“I knew that I wasn’t strong enough to be without the Internet without this restriction,” admits Kane, 46. Her and her partner’s fondness for screens and their daughter’s budding affection for them led the family to make the change 2½ ago.

The family often unwinds with screens during the week — Kane reading online, her partner using an app or playing an online game, and their 6-year-old daughter, Adar, watching “Dora the Explorer” or another show. Sometimes, Adar will want to play and get the grownups to unplug.

“Our daughter is pretty vocal and lets us know if she feels like we are spending too much time online and not enough time paying attention to her,” Kane says. “We try to stop what we’re doing when that happens, although it’s hard.”

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@globe.com.