Put Away Those Smartphones, by William Crain

In subways, restaurants, and other public places, I see more and more caregivers totally absorbed in mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets while they are with young children. When the children fuss and try to get their caregivers’ attention, the caregivers often ignore them.

As a professor of child psychology, I am deeply concerned. Several of my field’s greatest scholars — people such as Erik Erikson, John Bowlby, and D.W. Winnicott — felt that caregivers must be responsive to young children for the sake of the children’s emotional health. Caregivers, these scholars said, do not need to attend to absolutely everything a child does, but they should be sufficiently responsive to give the child confidence that care will be forthcoming when needed. 

These scholars wrote before the era of mobile devices, but I’m sure they would have been astonished by the degree to which caregivers with mobile devices ignore children. A few current researchers — the psychologist Sherry Turkle, in particular — have described how the devices distract caregivers, and I would like say more about the risks. 

According to Winnicott, Bowlby, and Erikson, caregiver responsiveness affects children’s sense of worth. When caregivers frequently ignore children, children get the feeling that they don’t matter. A 2015 online survey commissioned by AVG technologies suggests that parents’ extensive use of mobile devices can produce this result. 

The survey sampled 8 to 13-year-olds and their parents in several nations, including the U.S. More than half the children reported that their parents checked their mobile phones too often, and more than half the parents agreed. Moreover, a third of the children who complained indicated that their parents’ preoccupation with the phones made the children feel unimportant. Although only a minority of the children gave this response, it is worrisome. 

Bowlby and Erikson also emphasized that caregiver responsiveness influences children’s feelings about new relationships. If caregivers are accessible and responsive, children approach others optimistically, looking for positive responses. If, however, children feel that caregivers may be emotionally absent or unhelpful when needed, the children find it difficult to reach out to others in a confident manner. 

An in-depth study by Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician, and her co-investigators provides a vivid picture of how mobile devices interfere with caregiver responsiveness. In 2013, Radesky’s team conducted 55 observations of caregivers and their children in fast-food restaurants in the Boston area, primarily in middle-class neighborhoods. The observers, who sat at nearby tables, estimated the children’s ages to range from infancy to about 10 years. Seventy-three percent of the caregivers used mobile devices during the meals; 29 percent used their devices almost the entire time. Some never looked away from them.

While the caregivers were absorbed in their devices, the children frequently wriggled or engaged in provocative behavior to try to get their attention, but the caregivers generally ignored or scolded them. One young boy repeatedly tried to lift a female caregiver’s face up from a tablet screen, but she just kept pushing his hand away. When another child tried to get his caregiver’s attention, she kicked his leg under the table. A few tried to quiet the children by giving them their own tablets to play with. 

My guess is that the rejection was painful to the children. Bowlby’s colleague Mary Ainsworth has shown that one way children avoid this pain is to stop caring about others. Not wishing to experience further rejections, they keep others at a distance. 

Does this mean many of today’s children are doomed to lives of total isolation? Probably not. They can use the new technology to avoid this outcome. As Turkle observes in her recent book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” people can connect with others on digital devices without risking the rejection they fear in deeper, face-to-face relationships. But, Turkle says, their relationships are not as rich as they might be.

I recognize the need for more research on caregivers’ use of mobile devices, but I believe that health professionals should do more to alert parents to the risks. I had imagined that professionals talk about mobile devices with new parents. To check if I was correct, my colleague Kelly Conover and I spoke with six mothers who had given birth within the past three years (two within the past month) and three nurses who are familiar with hospital postpartum-area practices. The parents and nurses live or work in the Northeast or California. 

To my surprise, everyone told us that health professionals say nothing to new mothers about placing limits on mobile devices. Indeed, mothers routinely text friends, even during the quiet moments of labor, and when the baby is born, they hold smartphone parties, sharing photos and messages about the baby. The only limit anyone mentioned was a notice telling mothers not to unplug medical equipment to recharge their phones.

Official health organizations also have been rather silent on how mobile devices might promote inattentive parenting. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ new media-use guidelines include the sentence “Attentive parenting requires time away from screens,” but the academy needs to speak more fully and forcefully on the matter. 

The AVG survey suggested that many caregivers realize at some point that they should reduce their use of mobile devices and pay more attention to their children. But this isn’t easy to do. Caregivers, like most people, have become very attached to the technology. 

I recommend behavioral techniques. When sitting across from a child at a meal, for example, caregivers might reward themselves with a sip of coffee or a bite of tasty food only after spending a few seconds paying attention to the child. To be comfortable with the process, caregivers should initially keep the periods between rewards very brief and lengthen the periods very gradually. I bet that before long they will enjoy the children even more than the technological devices. 

William Crain is a professor of psychology at the City College of New York and a part-time Montauk resident.