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What science says about technology and parenting

Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan Medical School, studies the effect of technology on relationships between parents and children. According to a paper she published in Pediatric Research with Brandon T. McDaniel of Illinois State University, the more parents reported instances of “technoference”—technological devices interfering with social interactions—the more behavioral problems their kids had. The causation was not clear: either parents turn to tech as a form of escapism from children’s issues, or parents steeped in tech have kids who are more likely to misbehave.

In the two-year study, which included 183 parents with a child under five years old, parents with high technology use were predictive of small but significant behavior problems in kids, with kids escalating being more hyperactive, easily frustrated, and having more temper tantrums. The study also found that parents may become less responsive to their children because digital distractions give parents less exposure to reading their children’s emotions. “Parents who frequently use mobile devices during parent-child activities showed lower understanding of their child’s mental states and intentions,” it concluded.

Conversely, bad behavior from kids resulted in adults turning to technology, potentially for stress relief, suggesting the potential for a nasty spiral: kids behave badly because they don’t get much attention, driving their parents to digital distraction, thus resulting in more bad behavior. The study notes: “Clinically, our results suggest that mobile devices and other digital technology are potentially serving stress-relieving purposes for parents, but at the same time potentially displacing opportunities for parent-child connection important to child health and development.”

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Of course, parents may be more likely to lose themselves in social media because it’s all so new to them. Meanwhile, young people are already over Facebook, and seem to be showing some signs of some social media fatigue overall. The Guardian cited one survey of 9,000 slightly older internet users (18-24) from the research firm Ampere Analysis found that attitudes towards social media had changed a lot in two years. In 2016, 66% of young people agreed with the statement “social media is important to me,” compared to only 57% in 2018. Meanwhile, social-media use among adults is surging: Among the 45-plus age bracket, the share who say they value social media has increased from 23% to 28% in the past year, according to the Ampere survey. (Note that self-reported survey responses are not always the most reliable.)

There may be an upside to all this parental distraction. Sherry Turkle, a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at MIT and the author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, told Quartz that she is more hopeful for the next generation because of the undesirable example adults are setting for young people. “They know what it felt like to have parents who had no time for them and turned instead to their phones,” she said. “That sense of cost and loss, more than any notion of ‘discipline,’ is what I think is going to get us to another place.”

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