Your toddler is throwing a fit because of a tiny wrinkle in his sock. You try to straighten the sock a dozen times, but nothing works. Now you just want to tune out the crying and fussing. You grab your phone and watch the cat video your friend just posted. Your son screams louder. Sound familiar?
While the screen might give you temporary stress relief, it could make matters worse for your child. "This is the world we live in now, so it's important for us to be strategic in what we do with our devices," says Brandon McDaniel, PhD, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Illinois State University.
McDaniel and co-author Jenny Radesky, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine, studied 172 sets of parents of kids up to 5 years old to understand the impact digital devices have on parenting small children. The researchers asked parents about their stress levels, their children's behavior, and how many devices interrupted conversations or activities with their children daily.
The study found that if parents turn to their devices when they get stressed out by their child's behavior, the little one acts out even more, which can lead parents to retreat even further to their devices. Over time, these children might escalate their bad behavior to fight for their parents' attention. Putting the device down during interactions with your child might just break the cycle.
It doesn't matter how it started, McDaniel says: Whether you turned to your device when your child acted up, or your child acted up because you were engrossed in your device. "It's a loop. If you can identify the piece that's the easiest to change, you can often interrupt the entire cycle. For some families, the easiest piece to change is how you are interacting with technology."
It's not realistic to banish digital devices from your home and family, but you can set guidelines for how you'll use them. McDaniel offers these tips.
- Always make eye contact. If you can't put the phone down for a good reason, look up from your screen and into your child's eyes to tell him you need to finish writing that email. "It says, 'Yes, I was doing something, but you are more important than my device,' " McDaniel says.
- Designate tech-free zones. Different areas of the house might make sense for different families. "Maybe, if you have young children, you decide there's no reason you should ever enter your child's room with your phone," McDaniel says.
- Schedule away time. Discuss with your family certain activities when parents agree to stay away from their devices, such as dinnertime or a family outing.
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