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The screen time risk for kids that no one is talking about

PARENT ON PHONE
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It's not the risk from their use of screens -- it's the risk from our own.

Like many (if not most) millennial parents, I came into parenthood on the cusp of the smartphone revolution. There’s no question that the sudden and ubiquitous rise of smartphones has transformed the landscape of American life — and parenting is no exception.

I’ve struggled (and mostly failed) to juggle the seemingly endless bids for my attention from both my children, my work inside and outside the house, and the notifications on my phone. It feels silly to even type that sentence — after all, how can notifications be put in the same category as work and children? — but it’s all too true. Texts, Facebook messages, emails, and work-related apps swiftly developed a primacy comparable to my children’s questions, needs, and antics.

I’m far from the only parent to face this struggle — a recent article in the Atlantic explored the drastic way that smartphones have revolutionized parenting, to the detriment of our children.

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning…

Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention.

Sadly, this is a familiar scenario for me. There have been so many times when I’ve given a knee-jerk reaction to a child who interrupted me while I was writing an email or a message, and they’ve almost always been inappropriate reactions. I shoot straight to irritation at the interruption, without even listening to the reason behind it — without even listening to my child.

Far too often, the child in question is making a bid for attention not just for the sake of attention, but for the sake of emotional connection. Something has happened, someone has hit them or hurt their feelings, they’ve read something interesting or learned something new, or they just want to climb into my lap for a hug. And instead of responding to their emotional cue, I put a hard stop to it.

To be fair, there are plenty of times when I catch myself, apologize, and put the phone down so I can focus on my child. But there are also times when I don’t … and I’ve learned the hard way that apologizing later doesn’t make it right.

It hurts my kids when I don’t respond to them. They need me to be emotionally attuned to them in order to grow and develop emotionally. When I’m not, they instantly feel the rejection of the person they count on the most for unconditional emotional support, and it can stunt their emotional growth and development.

I don’t have an answer to the struggle, because there’s not a simple solution. “Throw your phone away” or “turn notifications off” isn’t practical for those of us whose jobs require nearly constant accessibility and communication. But the truth is that our children’s need for constant emotional attunement is a necessity for healthy child growth and development.

However, if human history has taught us anything, it’s that as a species, we are more than capable of adapting to shifting cultural realities and norms while still protecting the next generation. As parents, that’s an instinct that’s hardwired into us, provided we’re aware of the dangers new paradigms pose. 

Being more aware of the way my phone use has interrupted my connection with my kids actually has been helpful. I find myself being more intentional about the way I use my phone, being more diligent about blocking out time for work and then walking away to spend time with my kids.

It may be difficult, but today’s parents have no choice but to learn how to navigate the brave new world of constant connectivity while being mindful of our children’s innate need for true, constant connection.

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