[Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Culture Infusion, a leadership-focused blog co-founded by Bill Rieger, CIO, Flagler Hospital, and Chris Walden, Director of Information Systems, Health First. Kate was asked to be a guest columnist.]
When Bill and Chris asked me to write a piece for Culture Infusion, I was extremely honored. I’ve been an avid reader of the blog since its inception, and have always appreciated how open and honest both writers are. I admire their willingness to talk about topics like faith — which, let’s face it, is pretty much taboo these days — and work-life balance, something that’s often perceived as a women’s issue, when in fact, it’s a family issue. So as I started to think about what I wanted to say, I took inspiration from Bill and Chris, and chose a topic that comes straight from the heart: being there.
Like most working parents, I often find myself questioning my abilities. Are my kids eating enough healthy food? Are they getting fresh air and exercise? Am I doing enough to stimulate their thinking and imagination? I’m constantly putting myself on the witness stand. But there is no question that comes up as often as this one: Am I there for them?
A few weeks ago, I was at dinner with my husband and our three-year-old twins, and I noticed two different tables where every family member was on his or her phone. They were together physically, but mentally, they may as well had separate tables. This really bothered for me, for two reasons: 1) it wasn’t just a teenager texting away while her parents tried to get her attention — the parents were equally hypnotized by their phones; and 2) this type of scene has been far from unusual. Whereas adults are supposed to be the voice of reason, many are now just as engrossed in technology as their children, and the effects are downright scary.
In a recent study of families with kids between the ages of 8 and 15, AVG Technologies found that 54 percent of kids think parents check their devices too often, and 32 percent say they feel unimportant when parents get distracted by their phones. That isn’t just scary; it’s sad. As I watched those families existing in their own worlds, I put myself on the stand once again and asked the questions that needed to be asked. Am I guilty of the same crime? Do I miss out on precious time with my children and friends because I just have to scroll through my email or check FaceBook? Am I making my kids feel unimportant? Because here’s the thing. By tending to other tasks during what it supposed to be quality time with our kids, that’s exactly what we’re doing, albeit unintentionally. And it’s also sending a rather harmful message.
As part of an “anthropological observation,” researchers from Boston Medical Center led by pediatrician Jenny Radesky spent a summer watching 55 different groups of parents and young children eating at fast food restaurants. What they found is that many of the caregivers took out a device right away, putting it down only intermittently. Of those 55 parents, 40 used a mobile device during the meal, and many seemed more absorbed in the device than in the kids. At the surface, we know this sounds problematic. What most don’t realize is that it can be downright damaging. Why? Because face-to-face interactions are the primary way children learn, according to Radesky. “They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them,” she told NPR. “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions,” she said. What they’re also learning, unfortunately, is that it’s acceptable to ignore the ones you’re with.
For me, reading this was a true wake-up call. Sure, I’ve never consciously ignored my kids, but as a working parent for whom multitasking has become a way of life, I’m sure there have been times when I’ve picked up the phone while at the playground to make a shopping list or order a birthday present. And maybe it only took a few moments, but those are moments I could be spending pushing my daughter on the swing or chasing my son. Those are moments when I could be present with my kids, both physically and mentality. And so, I pledge to do better. To refuse to fall into the technology trap and to make it about face time with the ones I love; not FaceTime.