I often hear two related ideas about adults’ screen usage around children. Sometimes the parent asking the question guiltily confesses to using screens around their children more than they would like, and to using screens as a momentary escape from the demands of parenting.
Or the parent asking the question feels that they have found a sense of balance in their own screen usage, but worries about their partner who frequently ignores their child because they’re so focused on a screen.
In this episode we interview a luminary in the field of research related to children and screen usage: Dr. Jenny Radesky, who is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her research interests include the use of mobile technology by parents and young children, and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent-child interaction, and she was the lead author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.
We’ll learn whether you should be worried about Technoference, and some judgement-free steps you can take to navigate your (or your partner’s) screen usage around your child.
Click here to read the full transcript
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I’ve had our topic today on my mind for a while and over the last few months I think it’s become more relevant than it ever has been before. And the topic we’re going to talk about today is technoference and that’s the idea that technology, and specifically mobile phones, interferes with relationships that we have with other people. It can interfere with relationships of all kinds and your might first rest on your partner, and how you perceive your partner’s phone use interfering with your relationship, and we’ll certainly touch on that. But our primary focus for today will be on how our phones interfere with our relationships with our children. We’ll learn how concerned we should really be about this and what we should try and do to balance our own needs for connectedness with others and our children’s need for connectedness with us.
And so here to discuss this today with us is Dr. Jenny Radesky. Dr. Radesky is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Radesky obtained her MD from Harvard Medical School. Conducted her pediatrics residency at the University of Washington, and then a fellowship in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston University. She’s board certified in pediatrics and developmental behavioral pediatrics. Her research interests include the use of mobile technology by parents and young children, and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent child interaction. She was the lead author of the 2016 American Academy of pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.
Welcome, Dr. Radesky.
Dr. Radesky 08:16
Hi, thanks so much for having me.
Okay, so let’s start kind of where we often do when we’re coming to a topic like this, which is with some definitions and terminology. And I actually learned a new word while I was researching this episode, which is fubbing. So, I’m wondering, can you help us understand what is technoference? What is fubbing? Is it the same thing? Or is it different?
Dr. Radesky 08:38
It’s pretty similar. I mean, the term fubbing was in the research literature first, as I was starting to try to research how parents phone use influences family dynamics. It was like 2010-2011, and I was in my fellowship, and I was scouring the literature for any prior research on parents and kids and technology. And there wasn’t much there was really just this fubbing phenomenon, which was how a mobile phone inserts itself into an interpersonal space and the, you know, the person who is doing the fubbing kind of gets a little bit transported to, you know, another virtual space where they’re interacting with someone else, or with other content. And then the fubbee gets, you know, often the research is showing they’re frustrated. And this term started even when mobile phones were just little dumb phones, you know, with texting capabilities. And the mobile communications research was really just interested in, now we could take these devices everywhere, you know, they were focused on using technology on mass transit, or at mealtimes, or during other times that normally had a bit of a boundary around it when it came to technologies.
Dr. Radesky 09:53
So technoference was a term developed by my co-author and collaborator Brandon McDaniel. He’s a psychologist Who’s that Parkview Research Center in Indiana. So, he gets the credit for that term. But he coined that term in trying to capture a research measure that’s not just about how much is the parent using technology or how much is the child using technology, but what’s happening with the relationship? And so, it became a questionnaire asking parents about on a typical day, you know, how many devices are you using when you’re interacting with your child?
Yeah. And so, what I found was myself, it was kind of thinking about technoference in terms of the relationship. And then I just wanted to find fubbing, it’s this portmanteau of phone and snubbing stuck together. But I found the idea of the fubber and the fubbee to be useful to distinguish who’s on which end of that relationship as well.
Dr. Radesky 10:49
Yeah, and I think there’s been some interesting ethnographic research where people have interviewed families to talk about how it feels when your spouse or partner is doing the fubbing, especially when it’s just a high stress time in your household, or, you know, someone has to change a diaper, and all of a sudden your partner is absorbed in their phone. And so that, you know, negative connotation that comes with the term snubbing has even more layers, when it comes to parents who are taking care of a young child, which is just such, you know, has many different sources of stress in it to begin. Many different issues around co-parenting and role overload. And I’m interested in early childhood, mostly because it’s such a time of building resilience. When kids are facing adversity, or stressful times, like a pandemic, secure relationships are a huge buffer to that stress, or are a way that kids make meaning of stressful times build emotion regulation, you know, so that’s why I kind of put my interest in technology that started when I was in Seattle, you know, I was in Seattle in like 2007-2011, which is like, just the time that the iPhone and all these devices were coming out. And I was like, this is fascinating, you know, dynamics are changing so much in our hospital in our offices.
Dr. Radesky 12:07
So, I took that with my interest in early childhood relationships. And that’s where my first study in the fast-food restaurants came from because I was like, I just want to observe what’s happening here. I don’t want to come in with preconceived hypotheses or notions about this is bad, this is good. I want to observe, take field notes, like I’m an anthropologist, and just see the patterns of what’s happening. And that study wound up getting so much press attention, because there was already this societal kind of concern. Like, every time there’s new technologies introduced, the society gets a bit anxious, they feel uncomfortable, they feel disrupted. This has happened extremely rapidly, you know, the way that we’ve adopted these new technologies is so much faster than the way radio or telephones were adopted. So I was a fellow at the time and getting interviewed, you know, by like The Today Show or Al Jazeera America, and I was like, wow, people are really concerned about this, I need to be aware of the fact that this is a hot topic that’s going to polarize that’s going to kind of have some implicit judgement in it, too. And that’s where my research, you know, on this topic started.
Okay. So I wonder if we can go into that a little bit, then because I think a lot of the research that had been conducted to that point on fubbing, as it was known until then, was sort of done by asking people, how much do you use your phone? And then the fubbee, how much does it annoy you when somebody uses your phone, when they use their phone in front of you? And your methodology, it was the first time I’d seen it in the literature in this, you know, to be used in this way. And it’s been replicated a whole bunch of times in different environments since then. So, can you tell us what did you do? And then what did you see when you’re sitting in these restaurants?
Dr. Radesky 13:50
Yeah. And it took me a while to land on this study design, actually. So, we thought about creating a survey. And that’s what a lot of the fubbing research had been on but I was really worried that a survey would have too much what we call social desirability bias in research, and I also knew that the way that we interact with phones is more intermittent or immersive. I knew there was that cultural overlay of judgement of parents about it. So, I didn’t want to, you know, create a survey that could possibly be biased, I wanted objective data. So, objective meaning you can kind of observe it and count it and see what’s happening without the parent being self-conscious that they’re being judged.
Dr. Radesky 14:35
So, we decided on public observations, this has been done to look at how parents discipline their kids in public. It’s been done to look at how, you know, people interact with public spaces. And it’s considered ethical because we didn’t collect any identifiable data. We didn’t write down any child names, but the participants didn’t know we were watching. It’s you know, it’s called nonparticipant observation because you go and you blend in with the surroundings. So myself and two research assistants just went to all these fast-food restaurants in Boston, in the spring and summer of 2013. I was like pregnant as can be with my second son. And we were taking field notes. So, we would bring a laptop and some books and act like we were just, you know, drinking an iced coffee and taking field notes.
Dr. Radesky 15:24
We tried to go to sampled around different neighborhoods in Boston that had higher income, lower income, you know, Panera to Chipotle a to McDonald’s. And we just took these long winded, continuous notes of like, ‘Mom picks up phone, it’s held about 10 inches from her face, you know, child is eating French fry.’ So boring. But when we read these field notes over and over, we were just seeing patterns and themes of behavior that emerged. The biggest theme was absorption, we called it, which is a term that’s been used before, but it was really this idea that the parents gaze and attention and it looked like a lot of their cognitive energy was on the phone, not on the child. We were looking a lot, not just for the negative, we were looking for times when parents and kids were sharing media and laughing over it, we saw that like four times, out of 55 families. We saw, you know, about a third of families who used phones were had this absorption where there was very little conversation. Kids would sometimes act up to get their attention. You know, we saw one child who tried to pull his mom’s face up from her iPad, and she yelled at him and pushed him away, or another mom that kind of, you know, nudged her or kicked her kids under the table when they were, you know, acting up and trying to get her attention.
Dr. Radesky 16:42
And none of this, we really didn’t want to describe it in a way that made the parents sound like they’re being bad parents, it was really like, this is a new phenomenon. Parents have never had their attentions, you know, spread in so many different directions. And I saw it as like, a hypothesis generating study, like, what’s going on here? How do we measure this? What is going on the phone that drags our attention in so much? You know, are there other underlying relationship variables or parent mental health variables that could be affecting the phone use, right? So, I did not imply that this was causative, you know, that phone use was causing this sort of parenting reaction. And then so I decided to do some follow up studies to really get at some of the mechanisms of what’s going on here.
Okay. And I just want to sort of conclude with the point that this has been replicated a whole bunch of times since then, often in playgrounds. So, we see somebody typing on a computer on a plane.
Dr. Radesky 17:44
Yeah, so we actually chose not to do playgrounds, because I kind of felt like, well you know, let kids have some risky play and let them run off and let parents talk to each other or zone out a little bit. But playgrounds are just another easy public observation space. So it is a valid way to collect data, we chose mealtimes because we thought there should usually be some face to face interaction, not 100% of the meal, but you know, for some of the meal, but fast food restaurant meals, we also, you know, made sure to say don’t mean that this is what’s happening at home during mealtimes either, right? I was just one brief way to look at this.
Yeah. And in some of the other studies that I found that that happened to be about playgrounds, it varied from kind of three quarters of the people who were observed were using their phones for a good chunk of the time to in one study only it said two thirds of observed parents spent less than 5% of their time using different parts. So, there’s a really wide spread. Forty-one percent of those people didn’t use a phone at all. I can’t say that I’ve ever observed that.
Dr. Radesky 18:51
Exactly. If that results surprise me. But there’s definitely a very broad spread of different observed behavior in different places.
Dr. Radesky 18:59
Right. And as a scientist, I’m thinking, Okay, we care about duration, right? So there, that’s one variable. There’s also the not only the total amount of, say, seconds or minutes, but it’s also the number of initiations notifications, you know, is it initiated by the mom or the or the dad? Is it initiated by the notification on the phone? And then the content of what’s going on the phone really made me curious too. Is it a social media ping? Is it a game? Is it email? Because all of those things have different effects on our emotions and our cognitions. And then so I did some interview research with parents next because I really wanted to hear what their experiences were like. And, you know, how they described multitasking between kids and kind of their to do list on their phones. How intrusive it felt sometimes, like one mom said, it’s like the whole world is in your lap and I didn’t need it to be it just is now and I can’t resist checking. Other moms saying, you know, these games have a hook, they just keep pulling me in. I don’t, like, I heard a lot of ambivalence from parents about.. I feel drawn to this, but I don’t always feel like I love it. But I do love it. Sometimes I remember one mom saying, when I’m cooking, and I’ve been at home all day, I love these little human contacts that I get with other adults and I get news from the adult world. But then sometimes it’s exhausting too because the news is not good, or there’s like too many texts or notifications to respond to. So, she described it as like, there’s a little nuggets of excitement, and then a ton of exhaustion in her relationship with her phone. And, you know, I really started to focus on tech design at that point, like, how are our phones drawing us in unnecessarily? Because it really felt like in some cases, it was undermining parents own balance and relationship with their phone, and that sometimes they felt like, this isn’t actually what I needed at this time. But, you know, I went to check one thing, and I was on for half an hour. And now I’m grumpy, you know, there’s so many different levels of measurement, that we need to get right in the science to give better guidance to parents, because we can’t just say, turn your phone’s off.
Dr. Radesky 21:17
This is how we connect with the world and our social lives. But we can recognize that some aspects of the use are not supporting us as parents. They’re not as helpful as they could be.
Yeah, yeah, I definitely saw that theme in the literature here as well, the idea that, especially if we’re in a nuclear family, and the other parent is at work somewhere, maybe even out of the house all day, or happens to be shut up in another room for the bulk of the day working, and you’re with the kids, pretty much by yourself for most of the day, then it can get lonely, it can get boring, and that the technology can provide an escape from that. On the flip side of that there was also me research on what happens when we interact with Facebook and we seem to have this misattribution error, where we think that if we go to Facebook, and we’re going and looking for an experience is going to leave us feeling better when we come out, and what actually tends to happen is we come out of that experience feeling worse than we went in.
Dr. Radesky 22:12
I think that, you know, I see that as a design problem because Facebook could be this oasis for parents, right? It could be this place where you find your people, your support your ideas, you like get ideas for a new dentist or you know, new fall activities to go do with your kids, right, those, that’s what I hear from parents are the helpful bits of Facebook, but then they’re navigating all the garbage at the same time. And the garbage is there, because of the business model that Facebook has in terms of letting there be, you know, lots of ads that are trying to kind of target you and your specific psychological approach to the world. You know, parents are encountering a lot of like polarized parenting information that’s really like this is the best way to do this. And that, you know, inherent judgement that they’re feeling from clickbait type of parenting information or, or the way that the stuff that gets shared the most is usually the most outrageous, or the most arousing, I think is where it’s not suiting our needs. So, it may be idealistic, and not gonna happen anytime soon. But I really supported the idea of like, could there be a PBS for social media, right? Like a public broadcasting system, where we’re not, you know, our data and our, it’s not all built on us getting the perfect ads. Right, you can get some ads, absolutely. ads can support like, you know, good websites and media but it doesn’t have to be this whole kind of underground, like we don’t even know as much about it. There’s this really great but thick book called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff where if you want to dig into this, this sort of topic about this whole what she calls like, the shadow text of like, underlying all of these web platforms, and social media sites is data collection, profiling, figuring out who we are as parents what our vulnerabilities are, and then, you know, auctioning off ads to us. And, like, if hearing me say that I’m like, that doesn’t sound parent-centered at all, who needs that? And when you have designed that’s really meant to engage us more and make us click more things and make us share more of our information so that the advertisers know us better, it all kind of sounds ridiculous when you have a fussy baby at home, or you’re arguing with your spouse and you just need a break and want to connect with your friends.
Dr. Radesky 24:41
So, there. There’s my little rant about, you know, family-centered design. You don’t have to feel so hard, but this is weird tech design, you know, currently is there’s a lot of pushback against it for sure. But I’d love for parents to have, feel the right to have some pushback against it as well.
I do wonder if we made it so amazing people would then want to use it more.
Dr. Radesky 25:04
Oh well, that’s true.
How does that impact and I think this is the bulk of where we, that where the research is and where a parent’s interest lies is where, what happens to our child, to the fubbee, as it were, and by extension, you know, what’s happening in our relationship with our child when we’re doing this, when this is going on.
Dr. Radesky 25:25
And the ways that I see the research on this is that it went from kind of cruder measurements of what’s happening with the child, like my fast food study was, you know, some children just don’t talk to their parents, don’t try to get their attention. Other children tend to act up, appear to try to do silly things or, you know, ways to grab their parent’s attention or get them to put the phone down. And certainly, my kids have done that, to me as well. But you know, those are like really broad strokes of descriptions of children. We then did a study where we had videotapes of parents and kids eating together. During the structured task, it was done as part of another study that was looking at obesity and eating styles. And they did this 15-minute task where they introduced some new foods, some familiar foods, and they were coding how much the parents and children interacted about eating. It was kind of a boring task. So that’s a natural stimulus or bringing out your phone, which a quarter of the moms did, and that it was this naturalistic kind of capture, of real phone use, we didn’t manipulate it, it just happened. So, we coded, you know, the moms who were using their phone more talk to their kids less both in encouraging ways or nonverbal ways to. The moms didn’t differ: the phone using moms from non-phone using moms didn’t differ in terms of their depression levels, their parenting style, their income, or their race or… So, I thought that was a good sign that like, this isn’t just a marker of a parent who is different somehow or stress somehow, there’s some perturbation happening here. But it’s not just phone leads to negative child behavior, right? Because in child development theory, it’s always transactional, bidirectional.
Dr. Radesky 27:11
So, we did a follow up study from that and in this study, moms had gone through this interview called the working model of the child interview. I love this interview, because you’re basically just saying to moms, like, tell me about your kid, give me three words, or five words that describe them. Give me an example of what made you choose that word. And the interview is coded for how sensitive or reflective the parents are about their child, or how emotionally distant they might be, or critical or see their child is difficult. And a lot of those things trended with phone use. So moms who use their phones more, had more of these perceptions of their child is like this abstract difficult, like not really getting in their child’s mind, of what’s driving your behavior, you know, they weren’t as reflective about how their behavior impacts their child, or what drives their child’s behavior.
Dr. Radesky 28:06
So that was a sign to me like this either could be a lot of phone use during parent-child times could be displacing these times where you learn to read your kid, you know, and you don’t have to be perfect at this right? research shows, we can just be good enough and you know, and mess up sometimes and you’re fine but it helps you as a parent to know “How are you ticking, like, what is driving that crazy behavior,” because if you can address the underlying issue, and help your child express that emotion in a different way, or meet that impulse, in a slightly, you know, with a replacement behavior, you’re teaching while you’re disciplining. You’re not just reacting and punishing or reacting and thinking you’re crazy. Why are you doing this to me?
Yeah, your speaking language we understand here: behavior being an expression of a need.
Dr. Radesky 28:59
Right. And so right behavior is seeing behavior as communication rather than as a parent getting flooded by your child’s affect. It’s also possible though, that, let’s say you’re a parent who’s had some trauma or you have other reasons why it’s hard for you to be reflective about your child’s emotional state. Maybe those parents use technology more around families, because number one, it helps give you this buffer from your child’s affect and helps you feel like I need a little break from you, or they don’t realize the impact it’s having on their child in that moment. Right. So again, like we’re diving beyond the, you know, parent user’s phone child x bad into what’s the mechanism here, and I’d like this mechanism, because it’s not about blaming parents for like, you know, don’t use your phone, it makes your kids act bad. It’s maybe using the phone a ton is an escape mechanism for you and being aware of how much that’s happening, you’re just diving into your phone when life at home is too stressful because your phone is this frictionless personalized space, or maybe the flip of that is also that, the more you are able to think about what’s driving your child’s behavior, how they are responding to you, how they’re just how they’re wired, you know, what’s their personality and their temperament, like, and what are the things they need to get their energy out? That stuff makes parenting easier once you know those things about your child. So, and not in this precious way of like that you need to perfectly know your child, you just have to wonder and have a hunch, like, what’s going on with this? And, you know, that’s, I think, one of the messages I hope comes off as less judgmental to parents when it comes to this whole discussion of phone use, because it’s something that parents can so easily just blame themselves about. And rather, it’s something they could empower themselves about to be like, hmm, you know, maybe I need to set aside some time where I’m just single tasking, so that it actually feels easier to parent.
Mm hmm. Okay. So, we talked a good deal about the relationship and what’s happening in the relationship between the two people. And I’m also curious about it from the child’s perspective. And I know that’s really hard to get to when we’re talking about young children. And I’ve seen some research on adults. And when researchers ask adults, how do you feel and they talked about communication being of lower quality and decreased trust, and it feels like the other person is empathizing. And they even especially this, this was fascinating. I study in that had people two people at a restaurant who hadn’t met before and observed how much they use their phones during a conversation and the research is less than half. And just having a phone on the table, decreased the amount of trust that the other person felt in that person, even if they didn’t look at their phone or do anything with their phones. I thought, Oh, my goodness, it would have been so easy to go experimental with that you can have the researcher be oppressive, who either has the phone on the table or not. Actually, manipulate it and you’re one step further, but they didn’t, unfortunately. And so, what do we know if anything about how young children are perceiving us when we are using our phones around them?
Dr. Radesky 32:19
Yeah, the first bit of child interview data that I saw that wasn’t a published study, but it was in Catherine Steiner-Adair, as a psychologist in Boston and wrote a book called The Big Disconnect. And I think it came out in like, 2013, or something, but it she interviewed children who were like school age to teenagers about media use in their family. And they said things like, I just hate it when she’s on her phone, because it seems like she’s more interested in the phone than me. Or, you know, when they use it. While we’re playing together. It feels like they’re going away from me, I these aren’t exact quotes, but it was that general idea. And I’ll ask I tell parents to ask their own kids, because every child is different and is going to…
That would be scary isn’t it?
Dr. Radesky 33:08
Right? Because sometimes, I’ve asked my kids and like, my older child is like, Yeah, I don’t like it when your laptop’s out because you just seem serious. And you’re working hard, you’re focusing on stuff. And my little one was, I remember asking him once, and he was like, Oh, I like it when you use your phone, because I know that I can go, you know, find an iPad or do something, you’re distracted, right? So, he’s got a little more social thinking that he’s doing to manipulate the moment. But it’s worth asking, right? It’s worth talking about these fubbing dynamics, because we’re living in them, we’re immersed in them, and kids are gonna have to be aware of how they’re doing that to other people, or how it feels.
Dr. Radesky 33:53
You know, I love this PSA, that Common Sense Media put out a few years ago with Will Ferrell ignoring his kids at the dinner table.
I didn’t see that.
Dr. Radesky 34:02
I mean, he’s just being ridiculous and doing like a cat filter, while he’s kids are trying to talk to him. And, you know, so when you can call out the things we’re all doing, but we’re not talking about I just think it helps kind of clear the air and lets us talk about them more realistically. And lets us say to each other, like, hold on, I really need to talk to you about this, put your phone down. So, it doesn’t sound you know, judgy it’s just like, I know your attention is split…
Dr. Radesky 34:31
…if you’re looking at your phone while we’re talking. Another study that’s worth mentioning about how do children receive the interruption was done by some psychologists and language researchers. I think it was Temple or University of Delaware.
Yeah. And Dr. Golikoff was involved in that…
Dr. Radesky 34:50
and he’s been on the show before.
Dr. Radesky 34:53
Yeah. So I love their lab and they just did a very creative simple experiment of a parent and a young child came into the lab and did a like a language teaching task, which is a usual standard task to see, you know, how a parent could teach a child usually a nonsense word, something new. And then they randomize the families to get interrupted with a I end up can’t remember who’s a text or a phone call, but then call
Dr. Radesky 35:20
..but it was brief. And even though they all the families completed the language teaching task, children in the interrupted condition, didn’t remember the word or didn’t learn it, as well as the children in the uninterrupted condition. And so that was really fascinating that this little break in our joint attention with each other, or a loss of the kind of flow of a reciprocal interaction can impact the quality of our interactions. And young children depend on this the most, because they’re watching us for where are we looking? What are we paying attention to when we are, you know, have some good reciprocity? Where we’re having a serve and return conversation, we’re building off of their ideas, they’re building off of ours, that’s where kids are picking up the most knowledge and words. And so, when that gets disrupted, or made a little more shallow, that can perhaps impact language development.
Dr. Radesky 36:21
And that’s been shown, like with background TV…
Dr. Radesky 36:24
Dr. Radesky 36:24
Is that when the background TV is on and parents are using less rich words during play, then children in one study had toddlers had lowered language development. I think, as a developmental behavioral pediatrician, I test kids for autism, also, you know, on a weekly basis, so I’m looking for that reciprocity, as a way that we’re maintaining an interaction and building off of each other. It’s a really important part of social development. And that’s where it could also be disrupted, you know, so that kids are learning some pretty deep things from us, even in everyday moments, like, how do I feel? What does this mean, you know, it’s not just words and ABCs, and colors, it’s, you know, the kind of meaning systems that help children understand ourselves, and what’s happening in the world. And so, you know, that’s where the disruptions we really could use some more research looking not just at behavior, or language, but at kids’, you know, emotion regulation or their sense of self.
Yeah, I think the key thing that I got out of that word learning task study was the idea that we might think of, you know, we get a text message, we look away, and we check it, we come back, or we get a phone call, we come back, we pick up the task where we left off, we might think of that as a pause. But our children seem to perceive it in a very different way. So, it’s sort of like a disruption to them. It’s not just, you know, there was a break where something irrelevant to me happened that I didn’t need to pay attention to and now I’m going to pick up right where I left off, there’s some sort of disruption there. That’s meaning that they weren’t learning that word as effectively as they did with the parent was not interrupted.
Dr. Radesky 38:03
And I think one of the interesting potential mechanisms there is what parents described to me in my interviews of, there’s kind of a shadow cast by what you just did on your phone. So, if it’s your ex-boyfriend, who was violent with you in the past, and now they How did they get, you know, why are they accessing me right now? What do they want? If it is views of the world, that’s really stressful, right now, it kind of contaminates that time, or cast this shadow that may affect your emotional state, or your ability to focus and kind of pick right back up where you left off.
Dr. Radesky 38:45
And that’s where, you know, I think the ability to turn off notifications, or have your phone in a different space in the room or in your bag or something else, where you just have physical distance from it can help it be less of something just on your mind. You know, like that study, you mentioned that even just the presence of the phone, on the table is taking up part, you know, part of your attention, and doesn’t really need to be, you know, these devices have been crafted to have us depend on them and be inseparable from them, just to reuse them all the time. Isn’t that a great product if you make someone really dependent on it and want it all the time and need it for everything, but we don’t, you know, I mean, a lot of the time, we can be away from it for, you know, for a certain amount of time, depending on if you’re on call or you have a sick parent or something like that, of course those are times where you do need to really be attached to communication technologies.
Okay. And then just as sort of wrapping up this, you know, what are the impacts on the child? I think two things that I’d like to get to is, firstly, as children get older and are more able to start reporting, you know what happens and secondly, study from Australia that we were discussing before we started the recorded conversation. And that sort of seemed to cast a little more nuance on this than it always being bad. So maybe we can first off talk about teenagers because we’re going to get there sooner than we might think. And quite a number of studies have found links to links between fubbing behavior and disconnection in the relationships, which is linked to depression, externalizing problems and all kinds of things, and obviously, it’s not experimental evidence so we can’t say that one causes the other. But what kinds of trends here are you seeing as children are getting older related to their behavior, their relationships with their parents?
Dr. Radesky 40:38
You know, it depends, right. So, I’ve definitely have seen that children who just have more sources of resilience, either strong mental health or strong preexisting relationships, that they may be more resilient to some of the potential impacts of having more in person disconnection from their families. So, there’s that bi-directionality, right? So if you have a family that stresses you out, and you kind of want to withdraw from them into your peer group, or into a virtual space, that you where you can be yourself, it’s actually you know, there’s plenty of positives of being able to find your people through virtual means. But it’s when it is displacing the time you maybe need to heal or connect with people that you’re not getting along well with is where I think we need more research. So like I’m, I’m very interested in families with struggling with adversity or mental health issues, or trauma, where technology may be used as an avoidance tactic or an emotional distancing tactic or a, you know, regulating the child’s behaviors so that they don’t stress the parent out as much. Those are displacing important moments of the parent understanding their child’s emotional state, and then the child learning about themselves and about how to self-regulate through those everyday interactions that with enough displacement, are just not going to happen as much.
Dr. Radesky 42:08
So, the two studies that I think support this are the one you mentioned from Australia, where they, you know, had surveyed over 3,000 families. And it was really just when there was a lot of family displacement, where technoference was problematic in terms of having more negative outcomes associated with it. But when you just had a little bit of technoference, without much displacement that was actually associated with better parenting outcomes, because the parents were getting a break. And this couldn’t be more relevant than during the pandemic, when we’re just around each other all the time, and I’ve heard parents say, like, I need my own space from the kids, and we need time where we’re doing our own things and not just breathing it down each other’s neck. So, I like that there’s, you know, we need to maybe categorize this a little bit better as the extremes. Or when there’s, you know, clearly an avoidance or an emotional distancing function to the phone use.
Dr. Radesky 43:05
I also think, as kids get older, they’re learning from us informally through our role modelling and through observing us. So the more they see us using phones as an emotion regulation tool, the more they may see that as a norm, or a way that they just Well, you know, it’s okay to just withdraw into my device when we’ve just had a conflict instead of calming down and talking to each other. And it’s that repair after a conflict that really matters for relationship quality. So the study in infants where they did like a modified still face, having the mom look at her smartphone, instead of doing the still face and then how did the repair look, that time when the child has just been a bit dysregulated and upset, but you kind of calm down, and this is thought to be a paradigm for we have disruptions with our kids all the time we misunderstand them, we yell at them but it’s the repair where we’re able to either say we’re sorry, or debrief about what happened and come up with some problem solving strategies for later. Parents who used their phones a lot around their kids, so this kind of heavier displacement, had trouble with the repair phase where it just, they didn’t click as much they weren’t able to calm a fussy infant, or maybe they didn’t have as much confidence in their ability to figure out and many of us know that feeling when you have an infant that won’t calm down and you’re like, I stink at this. I don’t, like I’m the worst parent ever. Why can’t I do this? Moms should be able to do this. And that feeling of like I just can’t handle my kid is so alienating and demoralizing. And so, you know, that’s why I don’t think it’s as easy as well turn your phone off and your relationship with your child will improve. I think in many cases you may need, you know, a home visitor or an infant mental health therapist or a family therapist, who can just help you do more of the repair and more of the emotional communication in your family.
Yeah, I think that’s a really helpful way to understand it that it’s, and I guess, to summarize, I think what I had read in one of your papers was that the effect sizes here are fairly small, we’re not talking about if you’re experiencing technoference 10 times a day versus one times a day that the 10 times a day person is going to have some kind of dramatically different outcome with their child. But that when it’s compounded over many, many, many interactions over many, many years, and there are these other things that are going on in the relationship, but that’s when we need to look at it holistically, we can’t just look at technoference in isolation and say, shutting your phone off is going to fix all your problems. And it’s damaging your child.
Dr. Radesky 45:40
Right, I hate the word damage, you know, I kind of want there maybe to be this, maybe a feeling of like, well, in these younger years, I’m just going to invest in what’s harder, but I’m going to invest in some of these more difficult interactions or trying to, you know, sacrifice some of our own pleasure. That sounded horrible. But I like, you know, being able to invest in your child, and you kind of building these competencies, social and emotional competence together, which will make, hopefully make the school years and adolescence much easier for both of you. And so rather, rather than it seems like Oh, you’ve done irreparable damage to your child during these early years, I want it to be more seen as a time of really important investment of parent growth, right? We do so much growth as humans, by understanding our kids and why they trigger us or why our spouse acts a certain way or why the fact that like my son, reminding me of, you know, my mother makes me feel a certain way all that is really important insight to just grapple with and not avoid. And of course, I’m this is my bias because I’m a pediatrician, and someone who really thinks about mental health and emotional health a lot, but I think when parents have that self-efficacy to be like, I’m just gonna dig into this and we’re going to figure out what we can do, it’s just better for everyone compared to the demoralization or distancing that happens when you just feel like it’s all too much.
Yeah. Okay. So, let’s just say I’m a parent, and I, I’m slightly concerned about this. I’m not, you know, super, super concerned about it. But I think it’s something I might want to do something about. But we’re in this kind of really weird world right now, where we’re all around each other all the time. And my daughter is starting to pick up on the fact that she has limits on her screen time, which I’m going to write a blog post about this, at some point, we did an unlimited screen time for a month experiment, see how there we go. And we had her requests coming back to limited screen time. But she sees that her screen time is limited, and my time is not. And you know, the reality is I’m spending 10 hours a day on the computer. And I always used to do that. But she was in preschool before. And she didn’t see that. And now she sees me on the computer all the time. And I did find a study that said that mothers on average of these people who were studied spent 6.1 hours a day on their smartphones. So, I’m not alone in this. And you know, right now I can enforce limits on her screen time. But there’s going to come a time when that’s not the case. So how can we kind of convey this idea that, you know, I am here for you, and I want to have this relationship with you. And also, there are times when I’m going to be behind the screen, and we just can’t do it right now?
Dr. Radesky 48:32
Well, there’s a couple things I’m thinking about. One is, as parents, we can try to be a little bit more conscious about our own daily screen use habits and not have it just be this automatic, habit driven experience. Right? So step one is just trying to raise it from your subconscious to your conscious where you’re like, what am I doing, like look at your screen time on your phone or whatever, see how much time you’re spending on different apps. This in itself isn’t going to, you know, make you change your behavior. But at least we need the awareness and the time to reflect upon what we’re doing on technology. And then at that point, you can also decide like, wow, I spend that much time on Facebook or on Twitter or on email. How much of that is necessary, which ones of these apps when I look at their icons, I think like, Oh, this is like, this really helps me and other ones that are like, I feel this ambivalence with it. So, I’ve had some parents say they’ve like, tried a two week uninstallation of the apps that don’t fulfil them as much. You know, always just looking at Facebook on a browser, just setting a few new rules or boundaries for themselves and then using it as an experiment. Did it help did it not? Did you miss it? Or didn’t you? Did you feel like you had a clearer head? You know, this is all such an individual experience. There’s no one size fits all prescription to give but it’s worth experimenting and examining your own reactions to changes in your technologies. When we can’t get off our laptop because we have to work at least you can show children what you’re doing.
Hey, this is boring you can do if you want.
Dr. Radesky 50:14
Yeah, I know. Like, do you want to hear what I’m doing
I’m reading papers about technoference?
Dr. Radesky 50:19
I’m yeah, I’m messaging parents on the medical record, you know, I’m not sitting here playing Minecraft, you know, I’m so… So if you explain the purpose, and how you’re using technology to like meet the greater good, I guess, or just to your job, or to make some money, like, you have to give kids that larger context of how you’re using media, and maybe even talk about your own multitasking, like, you know, I, please, during virtual learning, my seven year old just is constantly wanting to leave the Zoom calls and go into YouTube, or he’s like, just wants to explore Google Drive, and like, make new documents. And it’s all just that he’s, you know, loves to explore and is inattentive right now. So, I think we should talk about our own inattention, or our own multitasking, or like, how many browser windows do you have up? Why do we need so many up? How do you keep track of, you know, whether the news you’ve read today is real or fake? Or, you know, what is this person trying to sell you when an ad pops up? Why is this cookies notification coming up? Sure. So, there’s, you can do some of that, like natural teaching, if they’re curious about what you’re doing.
Dr. Radesky 51:31
I have done family meetings where my kids say, you know, you’re just on your phone a ton, and I will, will make some behavior change, I’ll do some behavior change. And so, will they, you know, it’ll be kind of everyone has new behavior goals. And that’s, you know, parents could maybe get some insight from their kids of like, okay, what’s the time of day when you really want me the most. And I’ll try to carve out that time to be off tech. It stinks because a lot of us as parents are now doing more media use in the evenings after kids on bed to catch up.
Yeah, it was fascinating to look back through all the literature on how to navigate working from home and it’s all talking about having separation between, you know, having a separate room and having rituals that you go through before you go to that place. And, and I’m just looking at it laughing and I was typing the questions for this episode, while my daughter sitting next to me on Kids YouTube, because we don’t let her use that unsupervised, and you know, there’s no separation whatsoever.
Dr. Radesky 52:31
Right. And there’s, it’s really hard to have this kind of intentional, you know, teaching moments, like I just described with your kids, when our heads are so full of all the different demands on parents. So, right now, parents have been asked to do like an impossible number of tasks and roles. And so maybe the most we can come out of this time, where we’re using a lot of tech our kids are using a lot of tech is, at least it will maybe make us more enlightened about our relationships with technology and what feels good about some of the things we do and what feels overloading. You know, like your daughter asked to peel back on time and I’ve heard kids on my son’s Zoom call, say, like, I need a screen break and need to go move my body. You know, what isn’t tech doing for us right now? In the ways that we what do we miss so much that we can’t get through technology? And maybe that will help us be more reflective about the boundaries we want to set after, you know, all the kind of lockdowns or social distancing changes are done.
Dr. Radesky 53:37
But I think another way to think about screen time limits for kids, is that the more we’re teaching them, well, how are you using media? Is it something like fun and creative? Are you making movie trailers? Are you designing something new? Or are you watching unboxing videos for two hours straight, you know, there’s a difference between the consumptive and kind of just being zone not zoned out. I don’t like using the words that like because we don’t know what kids are really experiencing in their inner selves, as they’re watching an unboxing video. But there’s something a little bit escapist in a lot of the say, like YouTube content for kids or slime videos, or other things that are just satisfying. But they’re not necessarily challenging our brains in new ways.
Dr. Radesky 54:25
So one thing we can do early on is expect, help kids expect that media use is not just going to be sitting there and being satisfied that it’s going to be you taking control and you finding cool stuff or you making cool stuff. And that to help kids also know how to turn it off themselves, rather than you as the parent always having to grab it out of their hands. So, some degree of their own self-awareness and self-regulation around technology I think is really important to start talking about or you know in early childhood.
Yeah. Okay. And then the elephant in the room kind of popped his head up in my mind as we as we were thinking about that, which is, you know, what, if it’s not me, what if it’s my partner? You know, I see this going on, maybe I’m trying to do, so I’m trying to take steps to do the things we’ve talked about today, but my partner is oblivious. And I see my child’s attempts to connect with my partner and I see them falling flat. You don’t have to speak from direct experience if that’s not applicable to you. But…
Dr. Radesky 55:29
You know, it’s actually funny because my husband had a flip phone for a long time, and just got his first smartphone like…
And now he’s stuck with it the whole time.
Dr. Radesky 55:37
…three years ago, or, you know, two or three years ago, so he has his first little iPhone 5s, or, you know, tiny little thing, and all of a sudden, I’d see him just on it, you know, just hanging out by the kitchen sink, looking at something. And I was like, “Ha-ha, you, you’ve made fun of me all this time for looking so absorbed in, you know, this little computer that I’m carrying around, and it was pretty interesting to watch his own reaction to all that was available now in this but, and I have finally had to start being like, we just need to put this down while we’re talking to each other because we have such limited amounts of time where we can think clearly and negotiate what our day is going to be like, and I don’t want to be competing with whatever’s coming through that device. But again, I do this for a living. So, I am pretty straightforward about these topics and my family and I guess I would just encourage other families to be pretty straightforward about it, like this is a thing. It is going on around us, we should talk about it. And we should talk about… Whenever you’re talking about a problem in your family, you can’t come in and accuse or tell someone what they’re doing wrong, have a family meeting where you’re doing some collaborative problem solving, and you say I’m seeing this as a problem. What are you seeing as a problem? Well, how do you feel about this? What are some solutions you can think of, and you have the kids involved too, so they can speak up about what they think about the spouse or partner? And you may be set some ground rules that it’s not about telling other people that they’re bad, but it’s about expressing, you know, and finding a shared solution. So, I really like the collaborative problem-solving approach that Ross Greene…
Dr. Radesky 56:09
We did an episode too.
Dr. Radesky 57:12
…An Explosive Child because it’s trying to have everyone’s buy in, in something that’s going to be hard for, for some members of the family. And my husband did try to shut off the Wi-Fi to my phone during mealtimes once we got a new Wi-Fi provider, that was really, that was really annoying. And I was like, I don’t need a policeman, I need maybe more internal motivation to not be using it around dinnertime. So I wasn’t using at the table, it was more just, I’d pick it up whenever and maybe not help so much as I could have been with preparing, you know, and wrangling the kids and stuff like that. So, you know, yeah, that’s my advice. I think the conversation about your partner using technology is going to be interwoven with all your other dynamics, about what your avoidance tactics are, or your different emotional communication styles, the role balance in your family. So just know it’s got to go deeper than just who’s using a phone, but it’s one modifiable behavior, though, like that’s why it’s worth talking about because it is something you can put down and extricate yourself from and it’ll be fine.
It will! Thank you, for reassuring us for what’s worth worrying about and for reassuring us. I’m so grateful for you spending your time with us today.
Dr. Radesky 58:44
Yeah, this was a really great conversation. Thank you.
And so, listeners can find all of the references to the more than 30 studies that we talked about today at YourParentingMojo.com/Technoference.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. For more respectful research-based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you, I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.