Tech●no●ference (n.) – Allowing technology to interfere with social interactions

Parents deal with stress. That is a given.

Parents and caregivers who escape from stress using technology may be compounding the problem of challenging behavior in children. A researcher at Illinois State University says there is hope of breaking the cycle.

Parents are already given enough reasons to feel guilty. Technology is simply part of the culture we live in today. – Brandon McDaniel 

“If you have a child who’s emotionally reactive or acting out, it’s stressful,” said Assistant Professor Brandon McDaniel of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, who researches the impact of technology on couples and families. McDaniel recently conducted a study examining the impact of parents reaching for a device during interactions with their young children (under 5 years old). “Over time, stressed parents can withdraw into technology more and more. They may grab a smartphone, tablet, or other device when they need to calm down, or even when they feel bored. And over time this may turn into the way they cope with the stresses of parenting.”

headshot of Brandon McDaniel

Brandon McDaniel

Conducted with 172 two-parent families across the U.S., the study showed children tend to respond to the withdrawal of attention no matter how minor, even a notification that dings or a parent quickly checking an email. “Children note this and react, usually with more negative behavior. Parents get more stressed out, and may be more likely to withdraw into their technology, and now we’re stuck in a cycle.”

Instead of berating parents for overusing technology, McDaniel said he hopes the study will help families break the cycle of escapism through technology. “Parents are already given enough reasons to feel guilty. Technology is simply part of the culture we live in today,” said McDaniel, who added adults can reach for a device 70 times or more a day and not realize it.

McDaniel’s other studies show that technoference can affect relationships between adults as well, but the impact is potentially greater when it comes to interactions between adults and young children. “Adults have the cognitive ability to know that if someone is distracted, that person still loves us. We get it,” said McDaniel. “Children, on the other hand, haven’t yet developed the ability to think it through. They have a more difficult time understanding that the parent doesn’t love the device more than them. They just keep seeing that their needs are not being met or validated.”

Instead of berating parents, we all need to slowly learn better ways to interact with our devices and others. – McDaniel 

Children look to adults to establish their own models of behavior, noted McDaniel. Repeated or frequent technoference in face-to-face interactions could be seen as the norm in children’s minds. “Children are establishing what we call attachment bonds. It’s building a model inside of them that tells them what a relationship should look like,” he said. “This model tells us, ‘This is how I should treat others. This is how I should be treated by others. This is what it means to be loved and to love.’” It is possible, if children’s needs are not met, that they may form unhealthy views of relationships.

Intentionally breaking the cycle of technoference—even in small ways—can have a positive effect. McDaniel offered some tips to parents and caregivers to take the steps.

You have the power.
A child who acts out by screaming or yelling, or withdraws with moping or silence, can command a room. Yet parents have the power, said McDaniel. “We’re not doing blame game, but parents have the ability, and the responsibility, to maintain healthy family interactions.” The first challenge is to acknowledge the overall environment. “Take a step back and realize ‘I am feeling stressed,’ ‘I’m feeling down,’ or ‘I’m feeling bored.’ Know what is happening.”

Look up. Lock eyes.
When it comes to children, reassuring them of their importance can be as easy as looking into their eyes. “When a child comes to talk to you, or wants to interact with you, look up from your device, look into their eyes, and talk,” said McDaniel. “Even if what you need to say is ‘I am working right now.’ Or ‘I just have to finish what I’m doing, and then I will be right there.’ It’s important to acknowledge children, to let them know they are seen and cared about.”

Choose a time and place.
There is nothing new about tech-free times, but McDaniel also encourages tech-free zones. “I knew a family that would not bring a cell phone into their daughter’s room. There was plenty of use outside the room, but that was one area that was meant just for one-on-one time with her,” said McDaniel, who added other families choose places like the dinner table. “Each family will need to choose a path that works best for them.”

The overall goal of the study is to help families build healthy relationships. “Never before have we had something akin to a supercomputer that we could carry around with us everywhere. It’s become a primary connecting tool for society, even an extension of our identity,” said McDaniel. “Instead of berating parents, we all need to slowly learn better ways to interact with our devices and others.”