Attentional Insult

Today I went on an outing with a friend and his young daughter. My friend is in his 30’s and I have known him for a long time. I went out of my way to meet him and I’m sure he was pleased that I was there – but I noticed something. Every few minutes as we walked together, he looked at his phone.

Of course this is ubiquitous. It happens all the time. Nothing new here. But at the same time, I noticed something in myself. Each time he did this I felt a little hurt.

Am I the only one?

Or do other people feel slightly insulted when someone looks away and centers their attention on their phone?

And how about children?

Do they feel hurt when they are playing and look up to see if their parent is watching and instead, see their parent looking down at a phone?

What I am interested in is whether children get used to this when this is done by their parent or whether they feel a little hurt each time this happens – just as I did?

And if they DO feel hurt, what does this do to their sense of themselves, to their self confidence and to their feelings about their parent?

Even at my advanced age, I remember what it felt like when my father or my teacher focused on me. It was important to me. I wanted their attention and even more, I wanted their approval. I wanted them to think I was special in some way or another. I wanted them to notice me.

And I also remember the disappointment I felt when the teacher called on someone other than me or when my parent concentrated on one of my siblings rather than me.

I am sure nothing has changed in terms of children’s feelings about being noticed in the past few decades – I have to think that most children still crave the same sort of attention and recognition that I did.

So what happens when a parent shifts attention away from a child – not to a sibling, or to making dinner – but to the phone? And what happens when this occurs many times a day.

I would like to suggest something that is sure to be unpopular. I would like to suggest that this sort of shift may be experienced by children as an insult. A small insult. But still an insult – which, when repeated over and over throughout the day, every day, may add up to a larger insult.

And what does the research show?

Let me summarize what I have found:

A large international study done by a technology company had interesting results. Of six thousand eight- to thirteen-year-old children, 32% reported feeling “unimportant” when their parents used their cellphones during meals, conversations, or other family times.

This is alarming. If one third of all children feel unimportant when parents use cell phones during times when they might be having interactions, this is a LOT of children feeling unimportant at least some of the time.

Catherine Steiner Adair wrote a book called ‘The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.’ In researching her topic, Steiner-Adair interviewed one thousand children between the ages of four and eighteen, asking them about their parents’ use of mobile devices. Over and over again children used words such as “sad, mad, angry and lonely” to describe how they felt when their parents were using their cell phone. One four-year-old called his dad’s smartphone a “stupid phone.” Others recalled throwing their parent’s phone into the toilet, putting it in the oven or hiding it. And one child said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, anytime”.

So it seems that some children DO feel hurt.

Other studies I found looked slightly different questions:

In regard to the effect of parental cell phone use on children’s behavior, a study done by the pediatrician Sarah Radesky is relevant. Radesky became concerned enough about what she was seeing in her practice that she decided to do an observational study of cell phone use among mothers. She chose a popular location to do her research: McDonalds. And, perhaps not surprisingly, when Radesky looked at the patterns in what she and the other researchers observed, she found that children with parents who were most absorbed in their devices were more likely to act out, in an effort to get their parents’ attention. She described one group of three boys and their father: The father was on his cellphone, and the boys were singing a song repetitively and acting silly. When the boys got too loud, the father looked up from his phone and shouted at them to stop. But that only made the boys sing louder and act sillier. She noted that not only did children whose parents were on cell phones act up more but the parents were also more irritated than parents who were not on their cell phones.

Could it be that children “act up” sometimes, not to be “bad” but because they are feeling hurt?

Other researchers,Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, Sarah Myruski and colleagues studied the effect of cell phone use on young infants using a well known research strategy called the “still face paradigm”. It is well known that when presented with their mother’s expressionless face (still face) infants become dysregulated and display negative feelings as manifested through fussing and whimpering. In periods as short as two minutes, it is clear that seeing their mother’s unresponsive face is unsettling to even very young infants. Dennis-Tiwary and her colleagues realized that this same reaction might also occur when mothers are looking at cell phones. They recognized that during cell phone use the mother is physically present but distracted and unresponsive, similar to the still face paradigm. They performed a study to look at this and sure enough, for infants ages seven to twenty-three months, the infants who had the most negative reaction to their mother’s “still face” were the ones whose mothers used their cell phones the most. When their mother’s were displaying the still face (similar to the “cell phone face”), these infants explored less, were less able to re-engage with the mother or to explore the room and displayed fewer positive feelings once their mother was available again. These researchers concluded that, like other forms of maternal withdrawal and unresponsiveness, mobile-device use can have a negative impact on infant social-emotional functioning and parent-child interactions.

Brandon McDaniel, a researcher at Illinois State University has studied technology-based interruptions in parent-child interactions which he has called “technoference”. McDaniel has started to look at the effect of parental phone use on children’s behavior. His results show that technological interruptions are associated with child problem behaviors.

Of the parents he studied, almost half reported that their use of technology interfered with their interactions with their children three or more times per day. And, interestingly, mothers perceived their phone use as more problematic than fathers did.

So – what is your opinion on this? Feel free to leave a message in our “comments” section.

And if you are interested in finding out more, check out these links:

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