Are you a digital addict and don’t know it?

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 26, 2014 23:04 IST

Parents are as easily distracted by digital devices as scatty adolescents, reported a study in the journal Pediatrics. Most parents out for lunch with their young children with found texting, swiping, scrolling or reading on their smartphone or tablet while the child sat across the table.

To find out how common it is for parents to use mobile devices around their kids, Dr Jenny Radesky, a fellow in developmental behavioural paediatrics at Boston Medical Center in the US, surreptitiously watched 55 parents out alone for a meal with one or more children under 10 years. Of the 55 parents, 40 used a cellphone during the meal, 16 used it throughout the meal.

Three gave a device to a child to keep the youngster occupied, but mostly it was grown-ups who sat there absorbed by screens. One mother with a little girl took out her phone immediately upon sitting down and used it throughout the meal, not even looking up when the girl left the table to get more ketchup.

So strong was the smartphone/tablet pull that children’s attempts to engage with parents fell flat. In one instance, a little boy started singing ‘Jingle bells, Batman smells’ only to have his cellphone-absorbed dad immediately hush him. The boy did but soon started singing again, which prompted his dad to look up and ask him to stop in a firm voice. The child did and the dad immediately went back to his phone.

While no large study has explored how parents’ obsessive use of devices effects children’s behaviour, psychologists are unanimous in saying it makes children feel somewhat neglected and insecure.

Of course, children as as distracted. A US study of 300 high school and university students studying for 15 minutes in their natural environments showed they were able to focus and stay on task for an average of only three minutes at a time. Nearly all of their distractions came from technology, with smartphones and laptops topping the list of gadgets providing constant interruptions.

Not surprisingly, those who stayed on task longer were better students. The worst were those who multitask end and kept switching back and forth between tasks. The worst were students who checked Facebook during the 15-minute study period. It didn’t matter how many times they looked at Facebook, just once was enough to put them in the lowest grades bracket simply because they confessed to constantly think about whether people had commented to their posts or simply needing to know what people were talking about.

Previous research has shown that children, including newborns, are primed to gaze into a mother’s eyes, and later both parents, to get social and emotional cues. So children do what they see parents doing. Very young children learn language and social skills largely through face-to-face interactions, talking and touching parents and if they miss out on these, the development of subtler skills -- such as empathy and reading people’s voice and expressions -- may get warped.

Technology kills empathy. Internet addicts show more volume in brain areas that process risk and reward and less activity in areas dealing with emotional regulation and aggression. Their levels of dopamine,a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centres, are also as high as that in the brains of addicts.

Direct interactions bring several benefits. Children who have regular sit-down meals with their family, for example, are better adjusted and less likely to be aggressive, emotionally unstable, or be addicted to smoking, alcohol or drugs. They also do better at school. What makes them smarter is not just nutritive food on the table but family discussions over meals.

Yogis got it right. Distractions are always in the mind and seldom need sensory reminders like rings, beeps, vibrations or flashing lights to draw attention. If you find yourself checking your phone in social situations, you need a tech detox and delaying the moment is a good way to start. When you get an urge to check your smartphone for a twitter or text update, tell yourself you’ll do it in a few minutes. Gradually increase the time till you do it only at leisure and not during social interactions. Another way to check compulsion is to use “technology breaks” to check your phone and then put it away to focus on work or conversation at hand.

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