By Stacy Blythe, RN, MBA, Ph.D.
Recently, my 10-year-old daughter innocently reminded me that actions speak louder than words. I was sitting beside the pool, scrolling through Facebook on my phone while she attended her weekly swimming lesson, when I looked up and saw her watching me. Her eyes met mine. She lifted her hand with her index and middle finger outstretched, pointing at me and then she turned her hand around to point at herself. The implication was clear. She wanted me to watch her swim, rather than look at my phone. She wanted me present and in the moment, with her.
“Technoference” is the term used to describe the interference of technology on various aspects of human relationships. “Phubbing” (a combination of the words phone and snubbing), the term used to describe my behavior at the pool, is sadly becoming the social norm. It’s physically turning away and prioritizing one’s device instead of paying attention to another person in a social context. Research has found technoference can come between parents and caregivers and their children, potentially inhibiting or disrupting attachment.
Evidence suggests that parental phubbing behaviors impact children in every age group and are particularly problematic during infancy and early childhood because it interferes with eye contact, a foundational component to establishing healthy attachment. Preoccupied parents and caregivers have been found to be less attentive and less engaged with their children. Consequently, toddlers and school-aged children may express frustration or display disruptive behaviors to get attention. Older children and young people report feeling dismayed and unimportant when trying to talk to a distracted parent or caregiver. This can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
So what can we, as parents and caregivers, do? There is growing evidence that healthy parental engagement with technology positively influences children and young people’s use of technology. Therefore we need to set clear boundaries related to technology, for the entire household. These boundaries may need to be re-evaluated as your household composition changes, but here are a few suggestions.
- Have No-Tech Zones – identify places in your home where it’s inappropriate to engage with technology, including phones. This might be the kitchen or dinner table. Restricting technology in these areas will also protect devices from potential damage and may also facilitate conversation amongst household members.
- Have No-Tech Times – research clearly identifies that the blue light on many devices interferes with sleep patterns. Set a time limit, perhaps one hour before going to bed, when all devices should also be put to bed.
- Have No-Tech Activities – identify activities that warrant your presence and commit to putting the devices away during these times. This might be during swimming lessons (note to self), while watching a movie, during meal times, or when in conversation.
Technology is not all bad. Although it has the capacity to undermine and interfere with attachment, it can also facilitate communication and relationships, as many of us have learned during the current COVID context. However, as parents and caregivers it is our responsibility to ensure technology is used appropriately by the children and young people we love and care for. To do this, it’s important we model this behavior ourselves.
Healthy attachment is foundational to life-long health and well-being. Healthy attachment helps children and young people understand social interaction, as well as feel safe, valued and secure. Children in foster care often have poor attachment experiences prior to entering (and sometimes during) care. These poor experiences can often impede attachment, making it difficult for these young people to healthily interact, or feel safe, valued and secure. Therefore it is essential for parents and caregivers to intentionally prioritize the development of healthy attachment relationships with the children and young people entrusted to their care.
While putting down the phone and being present in the moment may be simple for some, it may be more difficult for others. Either way, it may be one step closer to a healthy relationship with the children and young people in your care — as well as the other important people in your life. •
Dr. Stacy Blythe is a registered nurse and a research academic. Her research focuses on the health and well-being of children in out-of-home care and their families. As a lecturer in infant mental health, she is interested in infants who are prenatally exposed to harmful substances. In addition to nursing, teaching and research qualifications, Blythe has post graduate certification in developmental trauma and has been an authorized foster carer for more than 16 years. Blythe provides training to health care workers, social service providers and foster carers in relation to working with children who have prenatal substance exposure and/or have experienced trauma.