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Digital devices during family time could exacerbate bad behaviour





Family time

By Michael Hawton

21st June, 2018

Michael Hawton has been asked to respond to the following study released on 13th June.

Parents who spend a lot of time on their phones or watching television during family activities such as meals, playtime, and bedtime could influence their long-term relationships with their children. This is according to researchers who say so called 'technoference' can lead children to show more frustration, hyperactivity, whining, sulking or tantrums.



What are your thoughts on the study?

This study shows that we are letting technology interfere with primal things, like looking after our offspring. From a biological point of view, children are ‘pack animals’, who need the connection with their pack if they are to survive and flourish. Having worked in the children’s court for many years, I have seen parents distracted from their primary task of caregiving by drug addiction or by their own mental health needs. This is not that different. What is going on here is that parents are allowing this bright and shiny distraction - called their device – to determine what they do. This can’t be good.

Does the overuse of devices by parents lead to greater tension in the household both with kid's behavioural issues and parents getting angry when they're disturbed by their children?

As it says in the study, it’s transactional and will get worse over time. The pattern which gets repeated is that the child seeks their parents attention (which is their basic need), the parent fobs them off, the child ups the ante and then the parent feels annoyed and may lash out. This is a cycle that can only be broken by one party though – the parent.

What are some tips for parents to help them turn off their devices (tv, phone, computer) and interact more freely with their children?

  1. You’ve asked me for some tips; well here’s what I think: Your phone is a resource. As such, it is like any other resource, which you can use or not use. We have a saying in our parents and technology course; the internet is an invited guest not an assumed resident! This basically means that you should control your technology, and you can ask it into your life or you can remove it from your life, at your discretion.

  2. What this research highlights is that parents need to work out their main life priorities. It’s all those tiny day-to-day interactions that go into forming a healthy attachment with children under five. If we’re letting our need for devices have ascendancy over relationships, not only is this not in our child’s best interest, but it is basically rude.

  3. A good question parents may want to ask themselves is how do I want my child to remember me? As a rude, cranky person who was always on their phone – then the parents cited in this study should keep using your phone like they are doing. Alternatively, do they want their child to remember them as a warm and available person and one of life’s first teachers - then it’s time to get control over the phone.

How do you see this benefiting children who are acting out craving for attention from their parents?

I can’t expect parents to know this, because most of them have not studied in this area. But, it is important to realise this, any child’s nervous system (which is spread throughout his or her body) is really dependent on the people with whom the child has an attachment.  In other words, parents are the main ‘instruments’ - for want of a better word - who calm down children by connecting with them, by stroking them, by reassuring them and by saying things to help them identify how they feel about things. They can’t calm themselves down until they get older.

Kids want attention, because that is what they need. And, if they don’t get it naturally in the day-to-day interactions they may have with their parent, they’ll possibly go to extremes to make their needs well known.  I think what we’re seeing in this study is that children may be misbehaving more, because they aren’t getting enough of their parents’ attention.

On the flip side, parents also need to use devices when their kids are home, mainly for work, but also for play and relaxation - how can parents set some boundaries for their children to also respect this need and still know they are loved?

I think parents have the right to not be interrupted (perhaps they’re working or doing something important) but, maybe they should also have the kids minded while they are working. At a practical level, it’s about preparation and it’s about set-up.

The same goes with spending time with children. Parents could probably also timetable periods to be with their kids, when they’re NOT on their devices.  Just make a rule that there are no phones at bed time, bath and play times. Frisbee time is phone-less. Walking the dog is phone-less. Grocery shopping is phone-less. At the end of the day though, adults have rights and privileges that come with adulthood. You can still help kids know they are loved by spending quality, undistracted time with them.  Remember, the phone is a resource you can either use or not use.

About the author

Michael Hawton is the founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents.


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