How 'technoference' impacts modern families

Published on Wednesday, 06 November 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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On one level, mobile devices are absolutely brilliant. They put a world of information in the palm of your hand, connect you with others and are an easy way to pass the time.

However, just as children shouldn't have too much screen time, there are concerns that prolific use of digital devices by parents is having a negative impact on family relationships and children's behaviour.

Here, we look at some research around 'technoference' and see how parents can reduce digital distractions and focus instead on family connections.

What is 'technoference'?

Researchers describe technoference as, 'Everyday interruptions in face-to-face interactions because of technology devices,' and although technoference is experienced by many different people, it's a common occurrence amongst parents.

Technoference can happen at home or out and about, and here are three ways it could play out:

  • Your preschooler wants to show you how they can swing themselves at the playground and you respond by mumbling, 'Just a sec…' then continuing to focus on your phone.
  • Your mobile vibrates while you're playing with your toddler in the garden and you check the message. Before you know it, you're looking at Facebook and your child has moved on to another activity on their own
  • You ask your school child to have a shower, then get caught up looking at your emails. Before you know it, they've been in the water for 30 minutes and still haven't used any soap!

How much time are parents spending on their digital devices?

Different families have different technology habits, but international research indicates that many parents are spending a lot of time connected to the internet rather than to their children.

Various studies indicate:

  • Parents are using internet-connected devices 3.5 hours a day on average
  • Sixty-five per cent of mums report that technology devices 'sometimes or more often' interrupt playtime with their child, and 22 per cent admit that technoference happens 'at least sometimes,' even when disciplining their child
  • More than 50 per cent of children say that their parents check their phones too much, 36 per cent say their parents get distracted by their mobiles during conversations
  • Almost 47 per cent of families use their mobile phones at the dinner table

How can technoference negatively impact families?

Although children benefit from some independent play and every parent needs a little 'me time', there are concerns that too much technoference is having a damaging effect on family relationships and children's behaviour.

The Institute for Family Studies (IFS) worries that digital distractions can alter 'parenting sensitivity' and affect the emotional bond between parent and child.

They suggest that, 'Distraction with a device could potentially influence every aspect of parenting quality, leading you to be less in sync with your child's cues, to misinterpret your child's needs, to respond more harshly than usual, and to respond much too long after the need arose.'

Another study has shown that parents who are distracted by their devices interact less with their children, and there's concern that this reduction in the quality and quantity of parent-child time is affecting children's behaviour.

The IFS has found a link between technoference in the parent-child relationship and increased, 'Child internalising (e.g. anxiety, depression) and externalising (e.g. hyperactivity, disruptive behaviour) problems.'

This thinking is backed up by another study which suggests that children are at risk of behaviour problems, such as sadness, withdrawal and tantrums when they have to compete with digital devices for their parent's attention.

And, overall, a 2018 study has found that, 'Parents who spend a lot of time on their phones or watching television during family activities … could influence their long-term relationships with their children' and exacerbate bad behaviour.

How can parents avoid technoference?

Although there are times when it's important, interesting or downright essential to use a digital device, here are some of the experts' tips for shifting the focus from technology to family time:

  1. Monitor your technology habits and make your devices less distracting, e.g. you could track your phone usage and turn off email and/or social media notifications.
  2. Prioritise 'sharing moments' and develop strategies for being attentive to your child, e.g. you could introduce technology-free areas or times at home; commit to putting your device down when your child walks into the room; and make an effort to live in the moment, instead of on social media.
  3. Model good behaviour for your child, e.g. use your digital devices in moderation and ask yourself whether that social media post, email-check or web search can wait. If it can, focus on engaging with your child and not letting technology interfere with family time.
  4. Work with your partner and family to reduce technoference, e.g. you could create a 'device plan' together, agreeing on when and where digital devices can be used; or create a 'device basket' where all phones and tablets live at certain times of the day.

The takeaway from all this is that digital devices do have a lot to offer, but moderation is key and there's a time and a place for everything.

If you think technology is impacting the relationship you have with your child, partner or anyone else, then it's important to take a step back and focus on the most important experiences – and people – in your life.

By actively connecting with your child, you'll build the bonds and promote the behaviours that will spark joy long after that email becomes old news.

Further reading and references

Screen time: Why less is best for preschoolers
The Institute for Family Studies
The Conversation

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