Parent Screen-Time Coincides with Child Behavior Problems.
The spaghetti sauce simmers on the stove, salad is ready to go, and I toss the noodles with olive oil. I pour a glass of merlot and plop down on the couch for a five-minute break. I scroll through Instagram posts, comment on my friend’s beach pictures, and reply to a text from my oldest son. A screech erupts from behind my head; “Don’t touch my bawooon!!!” I sigh and turn around and attempt to interrupt the breakdown about to unfold. “Please don’t bop your little sister’s balloon. Can I just have a few minutes here? okay?”
Within ten seconds another outburst erupts, this time about her missing lunchbox. Then its an incessant begging for chewing gum (“not before dinner!”), waving her kindergarten coloring pages in my face (“I’ll look in just a minute!”), whining to wear her flipflops to school (“we don’t wear flipflops in the snow, honey”!), and finally the excruciating joy of pink fingernail polish splattered across the carpet (“aaarrrrrggghhhh!!!!”). I stomp upstairs to fetch the polish remover, sorely tempted to lock myself in the bathroom for some overdue peace and quiet. Instead, gritting my teeth, I put the phone away and pull my little one into my lap while we soak and scrub the sticky pink spots on the carpet. Miraculously she is content; humming and twirling dress-up beads through tiny fingers.
According to a study in PubMed, I’m not alone in this scenario, with digital-technology taking my attention and my child demanding it back. In the latest issue of Pediatric Research, published at Nature.com, scientists unveil the fascinating association between parental technology use, negative child behavior, and subsequent stress in the home. Of course we’ve all seen the videos and the memes and the guilt-inducing posts about how we need to set the phone aside and be present in the present. But seriously, it’s hard! Invariably when I try to ignore that softly-glowing screen, there’s some backlash from my teenager about ignoring his texts, or 12 missed calls from my husband to let me know he was stopping at the grocery store and “what do we need?”, or that its-about-time callback from the orthodontist office with a quote I’m not really sure I want to hear anyway….
The research on the subject is pretty fascinating, even if hard to swallow. In the January/February 2018 issue of Child Development, scientists Brandon McDaniel and Jenny Radesky revealed an investigation into the cause-and-effect aspect of parental digital technology use: If my kid is driving me crazy, do I retreat to my mobile device? Or is it my absorption in digital space that creates the crazy in my kid? Not surprisingly, it’s both!
The 160+ couples participating in the Pediatric Research study agreed to a longitudinal design, and from 2014 to 2016 periodically responded to questions from the Technology Device Interference Scale (TDIS), the Child Behavioral Checklist (CBCL), and the Parenting Stress Index (PSI). But instead of discovering a hard-and-fast rule for digital technology use and subsequent child behavior problems, researchers McDaniel and Radesky found an entwined, transactional pattern.
Yes, when my kids are being crazy, I want to find Calgon-take-me-away moments in those irreverent and hilarious mom-posts online. And yes, when I stop to focus on the 237 texts my teen sent in the last four minutes, my kids turn on the crazies to get my attention. Ultimately the research reveals some comforting truths: digital technology is a viable retreat from the chaos of parenting, AND my kids aren’t really so awful for the crazy-dance they respond with.
McDaniel and Radesky conclude their research article with ideas for rectifying the stressful cycle, for example “unplugged family routines” to improve parenting stress and child behavior. The take-away for me is the comfort of validation: science confirms my cell-phone-use dilemma is a widespread phenomenon, which means I’m probably not such a rotten mom after all and my kids are wonderfully normal. And somehow – without feeling shamed or guilty – I think I’ll turn off my phone this evening, and just be present in the present with my family!