We know the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on kids and screen time so well we could recite them in our sleep. Nothing for children under two, and limit it to less than two hours a day for children ages 3 to 18. Not everyone adheres to it, but you can’t get out of the annual checkup at the pediatrician without being reminded that too much time in front of an electronic device isn’t good for young brain development.
But what about our own screen time? Think your kids don’t notice that you’re compulsively checking your e-mail or social media? Think again, says Catherine Steiner-Adair. The psychologist and the author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age” cites research in her book that shows that kids absolutely notice, and that’s not a good thing.
Steiner-Adair says children she works with feel disconnected from their distracted parents, and talk about being mad and sad, or feeling like they are less important or fun than the device that is stealing mom’s attention. Preteens and teens have told her their parents are “hypocrites” for spending so much time in front of a screen while so strictly limiting their kids’ access.
“Children feel weary from trying to get our attention,” Steiner-Adair said.
I spoke with Steiner-Adair recently by phone about why parents’ device time is, in some ways, more of a problem than kids’ screen time. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
You say in your book that our digital devices have come to define us. How, and why?
Instead of looking to your spouse, or kids, or best friend or people you would have conversations with daily, most of us look at our phones and see who needs me or who is interested in me. … It’s kind of hard to resist, yet chances are we really matter most to the people we just put on hold to check the phone. … What is diminished for people, as I study this more and more, is checking in with themselves in a deeper way. Increasingly, people say things like ‘I get antsy or anxious if I have a quiet moment without a screen in front of me.’ We’ve lost the ability to just daydream.
How are the current devices different from just watching television, which we all did plenty of growing up?
Television wasn’t personal. You were watching something else, you weren’t hearing from friends, getting e-mails from work. Now, even the ads targeting you are personal. Unlike the general commercials or shows you see on television, this feels more specific to you and it comes to define us and act as a source of validation. You check in and get upset when you see a picture of a party you weren’t invited to. Instagram can be instant drama or an instant delight. It’s very different than zoning out in front of TV, which is much more restful.”
What can we do to stop that?
Recognize that it really is a problem. Don’t minimize it, don’t think this is just the way it is now. … You have to reflect and think very seriously about who and what matters most to you, what do you want to do with these moments. Then when you hear that voice saying ‘just check,’ respond with ‘it can wait.’ Or decide that you’re only going to check three times a day or you’re going to have an afternoon off. Then enjoy it and resist the urge to compulsively check. Our interactions with these devices makes everything feel more urgent than it really is.
How does technology interfere with our relationships with our kids?
Kids don’t need our undivided attention all the time, but they need to know that they matter to us and that there are certain times of the day and certain situations where they have our attention. There need to be times where parents can really be fully available to their kids.
Are there times during the day when devices should be completely off-limits, for parents and kids?
On the way to school. They need time to deal with their personal anxieties related to school, and when we give them screens we don’t allow their brains to go through that adjustment period of checking in with themselves. It teaches them that the way you make transitions in life is with a screen, which can lead to psychological dependency. … Parents with babies are giving them the smartphone to keep them occupied while they change a diaper, when they should be cooing and singing to them, because that teaches them how to self soothe. Whether a child is 8 months old or 2 or 7, we need to teach children how to process things, make transitions, comfort themselves, deal with feelings and shift gears. We are becoming more and more reliant on computers, whether it’s a game or book, to function for kids in that way.
A lot of times we’re using our devices to allow us to try to be in two places at once (work and home). How can we create better boundaries?
Ask your child. Some kids prefer their parents sit in the car when they make calls at soccer games. Then they know you’re at work, it creates separation. But in general the more we can be clear with little kids, the better. If you’re working from home, put a stop and go sign on your door, so red means you’re working and green means you’re done, and it’s very clear. … Ask them what feels better for them. Some kids will say ‘I don’t care,’ but you also want your kids to develop the habit of being thoughtful of what’s good etiquette with technology.
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