Technology Impacting Parent-Child Relationships

. April 30, 2019.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, studies family use of digital technology.
Dr. Jenny Radesky, developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, studies family use of digital technology.

Could parental stress and our constant “checking in” in our digital world, cause us to “check out” in our roles as parents? Could this technology interference be causing our children to act out?

A study in the journal Pediatric Research took a closer look at this issue, surveying technology use in 183 couples with children under the age of 5, and results show some correlation.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the study, saw the results as significant as they showed some association between a child’s externalizing behaviors (like tantrums and aggression) and technological interruptions that can get in the way of parent-child interactions throughout a typical day.

Digital interruptions

Parents involved in the study answered online questionnaires conducted between 2014 and 2016. In addition, the study considered one, three and six-month time points. As people were surveyed about how many times per day devices like a cellphone, television, computer, tablet, iPod and video game console interrupted a conversation or active engagement with their child. Parents reported that, on average, they experienced disruptions by at least two devices interrupting interactions, and that the interruptions occurred one or more times a day.

In addition, parents reported observations of internalized problems/solutions, like whining and sulking along with externalizing behaviors like temper tantrums and hyperactivity. Parents also reported on their own feelings of stress and depression.

Parent stress, child behavior and technology connection

Radesky and study author Brandon T. McDaniel, a professor at Illinois State University, concluded in their findings that “parents, stressed by their child’s difficult behavior, may then withdraw from parent-child interactions with technology and this higher technology use during parent-child interactions may influence the child’s externalizing and withdrawal behaviors over time.”

“It can be that the child is reacting to not getting attention and they amp up their behavior to be able to get more of a parent reaction,” Radesky said. “The other possibility is that they’re not getting as much reciprocal play time or conversation with their parents.”

Although a distinct cause and effect relationship cannot be determined from the findings, Radesky said, the results are compelling enough to warrant further study and to advise parents to be mindful of their own technology use.

Radesky, who has been researching digital use and its impact on families since about 2013, said it is hard to measure, especially with how fast mobile technology has become an integral part of daily family life. “We don’t have the data yet to tell the threshold of what is too much technology use.” Also, she said, the threshold is different for different people and situations.

Intentional technology use

“I’m not telling parents to put their phones down altogether,” she said. “There are times when we need these devices,” adding that they can be used by parents in positive ways and for meaningful interactions with their children. She advises parents to be intentional in how they use their devices, avoiding the urge to respond to every notification that’s coming at them and interrupt their thought processes and the flow of activity with their kids.

As a parent of a 5 and 9-year-old, Radesky said she understands technology interference.

“What I strive for is being aware and telling my kids why I’m using my technology and being critical of the technology that’s sucking me in and also helping model that I can unplug and create a time and a place for technology too.”