As parents, we monitor and control our children’s access to devices and screen time diligently.  We are less rigorous with ourselves.  We often let ourselves off the hook after a “hard day” or because of “work needs”.  But let’s not fool ourselves…our kids are watching.  When technology and parenting collide, there can be serious affects on our parent-child.  This is “technoference”, and we are certainly paying the price.

What is Technoference?

According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, 95% of all Americans own a cell phone and 77% of all Americans own a smartphone. These statistics reflect the ubiquitous nature of technology and the fact that many people are consistently engaged with their technological devices (e.g., email, social media, news, texts). Recently, researchers have started to examine the potential impact of technology on parent-child interactions and child outcomes. The term ‘technoference’ is now being used to describe the technology-based interruptions that occur when a parent and child are interacting with each other.

What Has Research on Technoference Revealed?

Parent mobile technology use around children has been linked with increased:

  • Parental hostility, harshness, and impatience towards children
  • Child behaviors of whining, frustration, restlessness, and temper tantrums
  • Child screen time (e.g., t.v., iPad, video games)

Parent mobile technology use around children has been linked with decreased:

  • Parent-child interactions
  • Parental responsivity to children’s cues and bids for attention
  • Feelings of connections between parents and their children
  • Levels of perceived parental warmth

Clearly, the consequences of our technological distraction are not desirable.  So what do we do about it?

What do child psychologists recommend?

Given how immersed Americans are in technology, it is unrealistic to ask parents to ‘unplug’ and put technological devices away at all times when they are around their children. However, given the evidence supporting negative repercussions of technoference, parents are encouraged to:

1. Be Mindful

Be mindful of how much time you are focusing on your devices when around your children. For many parents, checking their smartphones has become so habitual that they do it without even realizing it. However, children notice it. Children notice each time the smartphone pings or each time you direct your attention to your device, even if it’s momentarily. Awareness of your own dependence on technology is important for your relationship with your child.

2. Be a Good Role Model

Be a good role model for your children. Just as we do not want our children focusing on their devices when we are talking with them, it’s important that we model desired behaviors when our children are near us. If we say “look at me when I am talking with you” then we should model that same behavior when our children talk with us.

3.  Designate ‘Tech-free’ Zones

Given the fact that the research shows that even small amounts of technoference can be detrimental for children and parent-child interactions, consider designating periods of time as ‘tech-free.’ For example, consider establishing the rule that no devices will be near the table during mealtimes, including outings to restaurants. As another example, consider the rule that no devices will be allowed during car time. While those drives to and from school, sports practices, and errands are typically brief, they often provide wonderful opportunities to talk with children and connect with them. Our devices could eliminate these opportunities.

4.  Remember Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Keep in mind that actions often do speak louder than words. Likewise, our actions often reflect our priorities. Consequently, children who see their parents constantly on their devices are potentially interpreting those behaviors as a reflection of their parents’ priorities. Simply put, children are likely to believe that their parents’ devices are more important than they are.

We all know that time passes quickly and our children will soon enough (too soon!) be heading out into the bigger world (e.g., college, workforce). We will never get this time with our children back. Further, our schedules and our children’s schedules are already busy enough, limiting the time we do get together. Our children are living in a high-pressure and fast-paced world. For these reasons, as often as possible, turn those devices off when the children are around and take advantage of the time you have with them. Our children need us more than our phones need us!

Mary Beth Leibham
By: Mary Beth Leibham

Mary Beth Leibham, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loras College (Iowa), a master's degree in developmental psychology from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University. Her early research interests focused on children's cognitive development, particularly the family and home factors related to young girls’ emerging science interests and science academic motivation. More recently, her research has focused on academic motivation, perfectionism, self-compassion, growth vs. fixed mindsets, and overparenting. Mary Beth teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent development, educational psychology, and exceptional children. Despite her extensive formal training in child development, Mary Beth’s most significant, impactful, and humbling learning experiences have come from her own four children and husband.

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