Research suggests that bad behaviour in children can be linked to their parents' phone use. How much is too much, Kevin Hackett asks
Is your smartphone addiction harming your child?
Since the Apple iPhone’s zeitgeist defining debut just a decade ago, the smartphone has become ubiquitous – a seemingly essential extension to all our hands, a deeply important part of our lives and, worryingly, a potential cause of all manner of social ills. Are you reading this on a mobile handheld device? Once you’ve made it to the end, what will you do? Check your emails, answer that WhatsApp message, post a photo of your dinner to Instagram, make a status update on Facebook, or perhaps tweet about the conversation you had earlier in the day with your manicurist?
Perhaps it might be a good idea to simply put it down and engage for a few minutes with your children, if you have any. Because, for all the ways that these machines enrich our lives, they are increasingly being blamed for the breakdown of the very fabric of family life. We, as a species, have become addicted to these "black mirrors", unable to tear our eyes away from screens that feed them with a literally endless stream of often useless information. And it would appear that our children are missing out on vital ‘quality time’ with their parents as a result.
An honest self-appraisal of our own mobile phone, tablet and other online portal use might provide us with a nasty shock. How much time do we really spend staring at them, communicating through them and sharing every waking moment of our lives with others on them? Think about some of their various uses: stills and video camera, voice recorder, word processor, television, music player, health monitor, calculator, currency converter, satellite navigation and, lest we forget, they can also be used to make and receive telephone calls.
Since their introduction, smartphones have had children and teenagers transfixed – their obvious addictions being cited as a cause in the breakdown of communication between them and other family members. But according to a research carried out by the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and Illinois State University, poor behaviour by children can be directly linked to their parents spending too much time glued to their smartphones and tablets. The results make for rather worrying reading.
“Even low or seemingly normal amounts of tech-related interruption were associated with greater child behavior problems such as oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity and whining," it states. The research also found that parents of children with behavioural difficulties are “more likely to withdraw or de-stress with technology during times with their child”. A classic vicious cycle? Perhaps.
Children of all ages can be extremely demanding of their parents’ attention and affection – that’s simple human nature. So if the parents in question continuously stare at the phone or tablet in their hands, then children will do all manner of things to bring the attention back to themselves. In many cases, according to Dubai-based mental health nurse, Anne-Marie D’Mello, that means playing up, or being badly behaved to get that much-needed attention, even if the response is negative. “After all,” she quips, “ any attention, in the minds of youngsters, can be preferable to no attention.”
Both D’Mello and Jeyla Shikhlinskaya, a Dubai-based family counsellor who specialises in working with children, agree that many more studies need to be carried out to accurately assess the impact that modern technology is having on families, but that it’s already become a problem for many.
“Even the youngest children are constantly striving to communicate with their parents,” says Shikhlinskaya, “and they learn from those parents very quickly what’s important in their lives. If all children see is their mum and dad staring at their phones, they can come to understand that they’re less important than whatever it is they are holding and looking at. Because they want to be the things their parents are holding.
“I have provided guidance to some families in recent months to set ground rules and, if they are followed, the results tend to be very positive. For instance, insisting that even just one mealtime each day should be free from interference – make sure the phones are somewhere else, give the children full attention and engage in real conversation with them. It’s natural for children to crave this, so give it to them.”
Shikhlinskaya says she talks to patients about what she calls the ‘emotional bank account’. “Happy times and positive experiences – they’re the deposits into the account. Arguments and stress, which every family goes through, are the withdrawals. For the family unit to survive long term, then, it needs to have enough positivity in the bank to counter the negatives when they happen. There is no overdraft facility and, when parents become addicted to technology, they don’t get to deposit anything worthwhile in their accounts.”
Talking to both these women, it’s clear that their own experiences in the UAE mirror those mentioned in the report. Also worrying is the fact that distracted parents may not be keeping track of their own childrens' phone use. “It’s also important,” says D’Mello, “for parents to not be so wrapped up in their own phone [and tablet] usage that they miss out on what their children are doing online, where there are so many dangers for them. It’s absolutely within a parent’s rights to be able to access their youngsters’ devices, to know their passwords and keep an eye on what they are doing. When I was young it was all about ‘stranger danger’ and not getting into the car of a stranger, or accepting sweets from adults we didn’t know. Now the dangers faced online are more severe and widespread, especially as adults can easily hide their true identities.”
Both agree, too, that the full impact of this negative trend might not be seen in society for another decade, which is extremely worrying. “To develop social skills,” adds Shikhlinskaya, “children need to be able to interact with each other and adults in person, to talk with them. Smartphones and tablets cause insular behavioural tendencies, children become withdrawn and, while they used to hang out in groups, now they chat with each other in WhatsApp groups. It’s causing real problems right now.”
Remi Beltram is the 18-year old son of expat parents, who became a user of this technology a bit later than some. “My early memories are of being on my bike, always falling off,” he laughs, “and getting hurt, or playing ball games with my friends; always being outdoors. And I’m fortunate that I soon became bored by smartphones once I did start having my own – ground rules set by my parents were definitely a good thing, though, and although they had these things themselves, they never let them interfere with our time together as a family.”
It’s heartening to hear such stories because they demonstrate that when parents are mindful of their children’s emotional needs, even in these permanently connected times, families can grow and stay strong without the commonplace generational divides that can saw them asunder.
“These devices are now a fact of life, they’re not going away,” concludes Shikhlinskaya. “Nobody is suggesting that parents stop using their phones and tablets – most of us live our lives through them – but it’s imperative that we keep that usage in check and, if we realise there’s a problem – even the beginnings of an addiction – readjust our habits. That WhatsApp chat can wait a few minutes while we tend to our children. They should always be the number one priorities in our lives and they must believe they are, too.”