Mobile technology can provide an escape for caregivers of young children—but it can also cause stress and negative parent-child interactions. 

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated October 17, 2016
Carlina Teteris/Getty Images

Being a parent in the age of smartphones certainly has its advantages. You can Google urgent questions, crowdsource advice, and share cute baby pics at the touch of a button.

But there’s a darker side, too: Using mobile technology around young kids may cause tension, conflicts, and negative interactions, according to a new study—suggesting that caregivers should be conscious of how, and when, they’re using their devices.

For many parents, this finding won’t be too surprising. (Who hasn’t had to choose between a buzzing phone and a toddler eager for attention?) But study authors wanted to understand how this internal tug of war affects parents emotionally. “It’s much harder to toggle between mom or dad brain and other aspects of life because the boundaries have all blurred together,” said the study’s lead author, Jenny Radesky, MD, a child behavior expert and pediatrician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, in a press release.

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The study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, involved interviews with 35 mothers, fathers, and grandmothers caring for children eight years or younger. When asked about the use of digital devices in their homes, participants consistently expressed an internal struggle between multitasking between mobile technology, work, and children. They also reported experiencing information overload, emotional tensions, and disrupted family routines. As one mom described it, “the whole world is in your lap.”

Some caregivers also reported a trickle-down effect, when their emotional responses to bad or stressful news on their mobile devices affected how they responded to their kids. In other cases, they reported more attention-seeking behavior from children when they were absorbed in their device, which prompted snapping at kids or other negative interactions.

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Ditching devices completely isn’t the answer, of course. Smartphones and tablets can also provide “an escape” from the boredom and stress of staying home and caring for young kids, the study noted, and can provide parents the opportunity to work from home, engage with the outside world, or communicate regularly with friends and family.

“You don’t have to be available to your children 100 percent of the time—in fact, it’s healthy for them to be independent,” Radesky said. “It’s also important for parents to feel relevant at work and other parts of their lives. However, we are seeing parents overloaded and exhausted from being pulled in so many different directions.”

Today, it’s estimated that parents use mobile devices nearly three hours a day. And compared to traditional distractions like books, mobile technology commands more attention and requires more emotional investment, says Radesky.

“Kids require a lot of different types of thinking, so multitasking between them and technology can be emotionally and mentally draining,” she said. Parents should be aware of this—and so should health-care providers, she added, so they can raise the issue with their patients and help families manage such conflicts.

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But what can caregivers actually do? Radesky offers three suggestions for balancing mobile-technology use with healthy, tuned-in parenting.

Create a plan for unplugging. Set boundaries for when and where you’ll put your devices down and focus solely on your kids—like dinnertime and bedtime, for example, or in certain rooms of the house.

“It could be a time of day when you’re home from work and your kid is really excited to see you, and you are just going to be willing to make that mental space for them by plugging in your device in the kitchen and getting on the floor with them,” Radesky said in an online video interview.

Monitor your mobile use. Apps like Moment can help you track how much time you’re spending on certain activities, like Facebook or work email. If one thing is taking up too much of your attention, consider creating a filter or block that limits your usage.

Save stressful stuff for kid-free time. Kids can react to smartphone-induced negative emotions with their own negativity—so it may help to not read the news, check your work email, or do other mobile tasks that can invoke these feelings when they’re around. “Maybe do it at times you know your kids are occupied and you have your own time and space to process it yourself,” Radesky said.