Esther Cepeda: Your children need your unplugged attention

As a teacher of young students with short attention spans, I recoil when I see babies and toddlers playing on their parents’ phones or tablets. My instinct is to bat the gadget out of the child’s hands as if it were a snapping wild animal.

 

Actually, phones and tablets should be dislodged from mom and dad’s hands, too.

Brandon McDaniel, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Illinois State University, recently published findings from a study of 170 two-parent households showing that mothers and fathers self-reported using their technology to the point of letting it distract them from their children.

McDaniel coined the term “technoference” — encompassing things like checking phones for text messages and notifications during meals, playtime or other routine activities — and found that even low amounts of it are associated with higher levels of behavioral problems in the respondents’ children. This makes all the sense in the world.

“When we feel … that someone’s not really paying as much attention to us as we would like, we might feel a little upset or a little frustrated with the situation,” McDaniel told Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization. “But if you think about children, they don’t have the same sorts of regulation abilities, the same ways of controlling their emotions; … [we figured] it would influence child behavior.”

Behavior is one thing — albeit a very important thing that has cascading consequences for children’s ability to regulate their bodies and emotions in school settings. But the actual cognitive impacts of technological interference on kids’ minds are even more chilling.

Another new study by child psychologists suggests that sudden cellphone interruptions by a parent could negatively impact a toddler’s language skills by stopping important communication tasks dead in their tracks.

Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, found that young children can’t learn from their caregivers when their interactions are interrupted by phone calls or other smartphone intrusions. She also notes the escalating negative effects of turning attention away from a child who is focused on a crucial language interaction — such as learning a new word — with a caregiver.

“At first the children think it’s inconsequential, at first they think mom is surely going to continue the conversation with them,” Hirsh-Pasek said on a related Child Trends video interview. “And then they find out that mom’s distracted; … and when they find out for real that it’s been cut, that that back-and-forth conversation isn’t fluid anymore, they start to get a little upset.” They’ll either look elsewhere or attempt to get the mother’s attention — and totally lose the interaction in the moment.

Notably, the effect of killing a teaching moment isn’t seen when there is an interruption to both parties, like when a doorbell unexpectedly rings or a dog barks, Hirsh-Pasek said. “It’s when one person breaks [the interaction], when one person violates the expectation [of focused communication], then it’s harder to bring everybody back in.”

Don’t believe it? Go out to any family-friendly restaurant and observe how much time adults spend completely ignoring their child in favor of their phone, or how many times conversations hit a brick wall when a text message chimes.

Schools are becoming no different.

The violation of the sacred learning space of school used to happen only in later grades when students brought their phones into classrooms. But increasingly it’s a universal distraction. Even in the lower grades, where students don’t have their own personal devices, teachers’ phones ding, buzz and ring throughout lessons, small-group work and one-on-one tutoring, robbing students and teachers alike of precious focus.

The experts say that kids cannot learn much without human social connections and suggest a simple fix that seems bedevilingly hard for adults to adopt: Put away electronic devices when you’re around children who depend on you for communication, affection and countless interpersonal skills.

At the very least, if you can’t disconnect for a majority of your time around kids, start small and build up to longer periods of uninterrupted communication time. It won’t be easy, but take inspiration from knowing that the skill of paying close, sustained attention will probably be the single most important emotional and life skill you can impart to a developing child.

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Esther Cepeda’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20071.

 

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