Life

Digital parenting could be harming our children

We already know that children can feel unimportant when their parents spend too much time on their digital devices but new research suggests that it can be a whole lot more damaging than that, writes Leona O'Neill

Parents who drift over to the digital side when spending time with their kids may be causing them to have shorter attention spans

NEXT time you're walking down the street, look up from your phone and see how many people are totally zoned out of the real world and immersed in the digital one.

It's easily done; there are so many attractions online to suck you in – friends posting on social media, interesting links to websites, photos, celebrity news, emails pinging, text alerts buzzing, news breaking. I walked behind a woman on Royal Avenue in Belfast the other day. A seriously impressive multi-tasker, she held her little boy's hand with one hand and held her phone with the other. She literally didn't look up from her phone from City Hall to Castle Court, apart from to press the button on the traffic lights. She didn't trip once.

To be honest, the only reason I wasn't checking my phone en route was because the battery was dead. So I was able to look around. And it was quite shocking.

I must have been too busy surfing the net to notice that everywhere I looked, people were on their phones. Couples walking up the street engrossed in separate phones, parents online as their kids ran about their feet, fellow human beings in the coffee queue with their heads in their phones, ignoring one another. It's a bit sad.

As parents, we are constantly restricting the time our kids spend online, but we are often worse ourselves. I'll admit I have taken my kids to the park, taken a photo, posted it on social media and then got immersed into conversations with people online about the photo and about my kids while they ran around before me.

I am a freelance journalist. I am constantly chasing stories. Social media is an immense tool for me in my work. I can't be too far away from my emails. If I let things slide I lose stories and therefore money. But I realise that perhaps I spend far too much time in the digital world and not enough in the real one, engaged and there with my kids.

And as if some higher power was trying to drum the message home, behaviour boffins in America released the latest research on the matter. We already know that children can feel unimportant when their parents spend too much time on their mobile devices, but this new research suggests that it can be a whole lot more damaging that that.

According to new studies, parents who drift over to the digital side when spending time with their kids may actually be gifting them with shorter attention spans.

Psychology researchers from the Indiana University warned that toddlers found it hard to focus if their parent got distracted while they were with them.

In experiments researchers had parents and children wear head cameras as they played together in a home environment set-up, giving the team a first-person point of view of what was going on. Researchers then measured the amount of amount of attention dedicated to various toys by kids and how it reflected on how much parents engaged with them.

When the infants and parents paid attention to the toys for more than 3.6 seconds, the kids honed in for 2.3 seconds longer on average, even after the parents had looked away. It might not seem much, but add those seconds up in a day, week and month and that is a lot of time not engaging during a critical stage in mental development.

Chen Yu of Indiana University who led the study, said that the ability of children to sustain attention was a strong indicator for later success in areas such as language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones.

She said that caregivers who appear distracted or whose eyes wander a lot while their children play appear to negatively impact infants' burgeoning attention spans during a key stage of development.

It certainly made me think that parents like me, who sometimes juggle work and childcare by keeping a constant eye on my phone, could be doing my kids harm.

The study is certainly a timely reminder to us all that the time we give our kids is a gift we must not waste.

I'd love to commit to a totally hands-free 100 per cent undivided attention to my kids 24/7, but I also need to feed them by working. So I'm going to try harder, starting by tuning in when I'm with them, and tuning out the bings, pings and notifications.

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