While the promise of innovations like email, smart phones, and social networking was bringing us all closer together, it often feels that they have only made it harder for us to connect with the people sitting in front of us. In my private practice as a clinical psychologist in New York City, I am constantly approached by concerned parents of children and teenagers, “My child is addicted to the smartphone or tablet!”.
Facebook, Tumbler, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, are just a few of the services that seem to constantly command their children’s focus. Parents are not just frustrated, they are bewildered! This is the first generation of parents raising children socialized in an always-connected digital society. The iPhone, released in 2007, is the same age as the 3rd graders who now use these devices like second nature. Though many of us struggle to remember a time before smart phones, Facebook, and the like, these new tools and the activities they enable are merely a comma in the latest sentence written in the history of human development. Parents of this generation have no models to turn to for guidance; their parents never had to confront these issues and, if we are being honest with ourselves, most adults (this author included) haven’t quite figured out how to deal with these developments in our own lives much less the lives of the next generation.
We, as a society, often forget to take the time to ask what sort of models we are setting for our children. Last summer I was in line waiting to board a plane. As I waited, a nearby family caught my attention. Three children under the age of eight, the youngest held by his dad, mom carrying heavy bags and holding her tablet. Waiting to board for over 20 minutes, I periodically glanced over at the family and each time the mother continued to be fixated on her tablet, despite the mounting rumbles of dwindling patience emanating from her children. Clearly, it is not just children who are addicted to their devices! In fact, research has shown that parents most involved in their mobile devices are more likely to have children who act out (Redesky, et al., 2014).
Though many of us roll our eyes at others’ use of their personal electronics, we rarely ask the meaningful questions; what is it about the devices that keep us so engaged or create the desire to constantly go back for more? And even more importantly, what is it that we are feeling when we reach for our phones… especially when we last checked it not five minutes ago? Research has shown that our brains produce dopamine when we receive an email, text, or a ‘like’, Dopamine is strongly associated with the pleasure seeking and reward center of your brain and is what perpetuates other addictions including drugs and gambling. It makes us feel good, important, wanted, and popular when we are aware that others are thinking of us. This might explain the continuous checking; however, next time you reach for your phone, I encourage you to check in with your feelings and ask yourself why are you going on your phone in the presence of your friends and family? Adults and children alike have expressed to me their insights as to why they reach for their phone. The most common responses are feelings of loneliness, anxiety, boredom, and sadness. Facebook and Instagram satisfy a wish to be noticed and included, seen and heard.
Moreover, when children, teens, and adults reach for a device, it allows them to disconnect. This disengagement is not just disconnecting from the day, homework, your job, but also from the people around you and the feelings of loneliness, anxiety, boredom, and sadness. Parents set the example for their children. Children learn from parents how to regulate their emotions and have conversations. If parents are disconnecting from their feelings and the important people in their lives, so are their children.
Furthermore, when attending to your phone in the presence of your children, significant others, or friends, what message do you think it sends? How do you think it makes them feel? Patients have shared with me that when family or friends take any call or text at any time it makes them feel sad, angry, and lonely. The message being sent to children is that they are boring to their parents and unimportant. It is still uncertain as to how these mini-moments of disconnection will impact children long-term. What we do know, however, is how children’s growth and development are affected socially, emotionally, academically, and physically when depressed parents display no emotion on their faces—similar to how we look when on our mobile devices.
In the busy life of New York City families, I constantly hear patients and parents struggling to find time for their family to connect. Connection begins with disconnecting from our devices and attending to those around us. The more mindful parents are of their own screen time the more emotionally attended to children feel. Designating some “screen-free” time for the entire family can be a good place to start.
Perhaps, when parents think twice before using their mobile devices around their children, their children may follow suit.