OK, 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? What if my baby sitter 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.
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.”
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What she found was children who feel that their parents often pay less attention to them than to their smartphones.
“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 them,” 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. “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 might start acting out to get their parents’ attention because they have a hard time distinguishing positive from negative attention,” says Kelly.
For those who counter that Facebook and text messaging are helping them stay more in touch with their kids, experts stress that 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 ... 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.”
Obviously, there are many parents – and families – who do manage technology responsibly, spending tech-free time with their children or partners every day.
But as I sit here writing this article, checking my BlackBerry for e-mails and paying bills online while monitoring with one ear a sick child, I particularly appreciate Turkle’s practical approach to this problem.
“I specifically do not use the 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.”