AnyBody: Parents are ignoring their children for their BlackBerry

Monday, January 31, 2011; 5:33 PM

Okay, I admit it: Sometimes I ignore my children for my BlackBerry - mostly for work-related reasons, although, to be totally honest, there's the occasional personal e-mail or text in there, too. It's just so hard to disregard that bright red flash, signaling a new message. I mean, what if there's a problem with my next column? Maybe an editor is writing with a plum new freelance assignment. . . . What if my babysitter can't make it tomorrow, or there's some pressing missive from a friend?

Before you start throwing stones, dear readers, I've seen YOU out there ignoring your kids, too: Typing furiously on your smartphone at Starbucks or, while your offspring sit across the table, equally engrossed in handheld video games; checking Facebook or playing online Scrabble in the carpool line; texting away during soccer practice; and staring at your cell - instead of your charges - at the playground. And I won't even mention those of you who sneak peeks at red lights, with the kids in the back seat, since that's now illegal in many places and dangerous everywhere.

Forget stressing about young people's texting, Twitter and gaming habits. Increasingly, it is adults' constant, obsessive use of these technologies that's coming under fire.

"It's now children who are complaining about their parents' habits," says clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who interviewed more than 300 young people and 150 adults for her new book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other."

What she found, over and over again, was children who feel that their parents often pay less attention to them than to their smartphones, particularly at mealtime, in the car at school pickup and during games or sport events - but even, on occasion, during bedtime stories.

"These are not people who are dysfunctional, who are out of control, who are addicted - they've just kind of let things get away from us," says Turkle. "It starts with the reality that people are expected to be online 24-7 - we're on all the time for our jobs - and it ends in the fantasy of 'there's something new just around the corner, waiting in your in box.' "

While there are many upsides to technology and constant connectivity, experts say there's also a cost for not paying as much attention to one another, especially within families. For one thing, parents who are easily distracted by their phones or iPads are modeling potentially harmful behavior for their impressionable children, says Patrick Kelly, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

He adds that putting these devices first can create discipline issues, too - as with my friend Hannah's 2-year-old son, who has taken to shouting "no, no, no!" and throwing Hannah's BlackBerry on the floor whenever she picks it up to check e-mail.

"If you're taking [parental attention] away from the child, for what looks like it is not a good reason, kids might think, 'What am I doing wrong that my parents don't like me?' and may start acting out to get their parents' attention because they have a hard time distinguishing positive from negative attention," says Kelly.

He has had couples bring a child in for a psychological evaluation and then start texting or e-mailing while their offspring is opening up, answering personal questions. "It's just like [putting a child in] a timeout: If you remove yourself from your child, that's punishment, and when that happens for no reason that a child can comprehend, it sends mixed messages and creates a lot of distress in the child's life, particularly younger children who just don't get that Mommy's working or Daddy has to take this call but will be back in five minutes."

For those who counter that Facebook and text messaging are helping them stay more in touch with their kids than ever before, experts stress that while these technologies can be a positive communication tool, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face contact. "Being able to look your child in the eye, to reflect what they're thinking and to be excited about the big test or disappointed about that breakup, and to really be there with them in a way you can't be in a text, is incredibly valuable, because it teaches kids to reflect on their own mental state and shows they're not alone in the world," says Kelly. "Eye contact is the number-one sign that you're relating to your kid."

As it turns out, we're also hurting ourselves when we juggle work, children and various technology tools at the same time. "Multitasking has been heralded for quite a few years as a skill we needed to master in order to catch up with our children, but research is now showing that the more we multitask, the more we degrade our performance in every one of those tasks," says Turkle. Her book cites a 2009 study from Stanford University, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It found that heavy multitaskers performed much worse on a series of cognitive and memory tests that involved distraction than those who focused on just one thing at a time.

Obviously, there are many parents - and families - who do manage technology responsibly, setting limits and spending tech-free time with their children or partners every day. All of the experts I interviewed recommend this. Some sainted moms and dads even put down their smartphones entirely when the kiddies are around.

But as I sit here writing this article, checking my BlackBerry for e-mails on another looming deadline and paying bills online, while monitoring with one ear a sick child, I particularly appreciate Turkle's sane, practical approach to this problem. "I specifically do not use term 'addiction,' because if you're addicted [to technology use], you have one choice and one choice only - to throw it away - and we're not going to throw this away," she says. "These technologies are with us, but we have to learn to live with them in a healthy way, according to our human values. And our human values are not to put our kids fifth, after texts, e-mail, Twitter and everything else."

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