Does this sound familiar?
Your child is playing, either on the playground or on the living room floor. You’re technically “with” your child: you know exactly what he’s doing, you can keep up a simple conversation with him, you’re right there in case he needs something.
But you’re actually on your phone. You’re checking e-mail, you’re texting a spouse, you’re checking a website, you’re reading an article.
Since I started blogging, my iPhone usage has skyrocketed, especially when I’m around my son. There are endless reasons why I need to check e-mail, respond to a comment. I’ve justified this as okay because I figured that my son — at two — really didn’t notice the difference if he were thoroughly occupied with something else and because I didn’t allow him to play with the phone at all himself. Sometimes when I’m alone for a day with him I’ll even go on the computer, but that generally gets him upset and it’s clear that he hates my laptop.
This weekend I read an interview in the Atlantic magazine with Linda Stone, who’s been researching for decades the changes in our attention strategies as the world has become increasingly hyper-connected. For me, the article called “The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World” was a wake up call about how I want to model focus and attention for my son. I’ve written previously about how “boredom” and self-directed play were influential to my childhood and to my own creativity and learning.
From Linda Stone’s discussion of her research on attention and new media, here is what I’ve learned about why being on the phone all the time is not going to help create that sort of environment for my son:
1. Your children will model your own attention habits. So if you show your kids that you constantly pay attention to everything around you — your phone, your child, the television — without focusing fully on anything, this is how they learn to interact with their environment. She calls this “continuous partial attention.”
2. Kids don’t necessarily have a natural fascination with social media and phones. According to her research, they’re actually fascinated by what their parents find interesting. If you were staring at the fish in your aquarium all day, then your kids would learn to find that equally riveting.
3. If their parents are always on the phone, children think, according to Stone, “That’s where it’s all at, there’s where I want to be!” When she interviewed children ages seven to 12 about their parents’ phone usage, they told her things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” or “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”
4. Children learn about how others are thinking and feeling — in other words, empathy — through direct eye contact and nonverbal communication. If this is true, and most of our gaze is directed toward our electronic devices, our kids could miss out on learning about empathy in the same way that many of us did as children.
For me, I needed the reminder that my son is a little sponge, soaking in how the adults around him interact with the world. Children learn by imitating their role models, and if we — as the adults closest to them — show them that electronic devices are what’s most important, this may have a significant impact on their later attention and empathy skills.
Now, please don’t confuse what I’m saying with the judgmental, sanctimonious recents posts that told parents — well, mothers — to get off their phones when they’re on the playgrounds because they were selfish and missing quality seconds with their kids and showing them that the phone was more important than they are. That’s not what I’m saying. Seriously, many kids, even young ones, could probably use less interaction time with adults, less hovering, less constant conversation and monitoring. They could use more time away from adults to go down the slide without anyone clapping — as I’ve been known to do, well, yesterday — and more chances to spin wildly down a hill without anyone telling them to slow down.
Instead, I’m just saying that we may be showing kids that our devices are too important, that they are deserving of hours of our day and our limited attentional energies. Maybe next time that I’m sitting on the couch and my son is playing with his trains I’ll read a book. Or I can sit quietly, relax, and focus on my breathing on the playground bench while my son is running around.
It’s a tough promise to make. I’m not sure that I can keep it honestly.
What about you? How do you use social media when you’re around your children? Do you think that this research is overly alarmist?
Over at The HerStories Project, our collaborative project examining new motherhood, one of the things that we’re most interested in is new parents’ relationship to social media. The online world of smart phones, tablets, and social media are affecting all of our lives in important ways, and we think it might be changing the experience of new motherhood. If you’re a new mom, please check out our HerStories Motherhood Survey and tell us how new media has impacted your experiences.