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Digitally Abandoned Children: Should We be Worried?

By Gary Paul Bryant

In my story “Gleason Snickell and the Search for Love”, twelve year-old Gleason plots with his nine year old neighbor to run away from home, mainly because they were feeling the pain of neglect of a dysfunctional family. It wasn’t because dad was an alcoholic, or that mom turned tricks when she should have been helping them with homework, it was because the parents were too absorbed in their own digital lives on smartphones laptops and tablets.

Like all of the tales in “The Phone and Other Short Stories,” Gleason Snickell was meant to be a bit zany, a tad poignant, and hopefully entertaining. I’ll let you be the judge whether I hit those marks, but the reality for progeny of such parents turns out to be much more disturbing and uncomfortable.

From playgrounds to restaurants, pediatrician’s offices, and school programs, it is becoming increasingly common to see parents engrossed in their phone while their children play or sit restlessly nearby. In some cases, the only sign of a child is a small jacket slung over a chair and a child yelling, “Mommy! Mommy! Watch this!” right before he or she does something dangerous. Let’s look at how prevalent this behavior is, as well what impact it can have on children now and in the future.

The Age of Digitally Abandoned Children
First, answer this question. Are you reading this on your phone or iPad? If you are, you run the risk of having your picture posted on a website dedicated to “shining a light on the culture of mobile phones and parental neglect”, Parents on Phones. This topic, often referred to as “parenting while texting” has been discussed everywhere from The Wall Street Journal, and from Dateline NBC in an episode entitled “The Perils of Parenting.” As a result, the media has placed parents in two categories: those parents who play on their phone while ignoring their children and the superior parents who do not.

A Look at the Numbers
How many parents are guilty of parenting while texting? According to a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics, the numbers are shockingly high. Researchers at Boston Medical Center went undercover at a fast food restaurant to observe the number of parents on their phone while eating with their children, as well as how they interacted with each other. Of the 55 families they observed, 40 of them were immersed in their phone. Almost 1/3 of the parents used their device throughout the entire meal, while ¾ checked their device at least once. So, what were the children doing? A few sat quietly, while most were restless or acted up in an effort to get their parent’s attention.

The Impact on Children Today
Physicians believe that this can have a significant impact on a child’s development because children learn best through face to face interactions. This is how they learn language, as well as about their emotions and how to regulate them. When this doesn’t happen, they often miss important developmental milestones. Researchers also found that children of parents who are frequently engrossed in their phone are more likely to act out.

In addition, a recent study presented at the 2015 Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting, parents using their mobile device while their children play on the playground are at higher risk for injuries. While their parents or caregivers are occupied, children are more likely to engage in risk taking behavior, such as sliding head first, jumping off moving swings, and walking up the slide.

How Can Using the Phone Today Impact Our Children Tomorrow?
According to Catherine Steiner Adair, a psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, it could potentially have dire emotional consequences. While Steiner Adair admits that she can’t be exactly sure how this will impact the parent/ child relationship in the long run, she does believe that constantly using a mobile device tells their children they aren’t interesting, don’t matter, aren’t as interesting as others, and that any ping could be enough to interrupt their time together.

As parents, we are constantly second guessing our decisions. However, putting down your cell phone and tuning into your child isn’t likely to be one of them.

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