How Well Do We Understand the Tech Habits of Parents?

How Well Do We Understand the Tech Habits of Parents?

When it comes to digital addiction, kids aren’t the only ones who have a problem—and that can take a toll on the whole family. Research is still in its early stages, but parents would be wise to heed the warnings.



n the summer of 2013, three women fanned out into metropolitan Boston and, for two months, spent their weekdays dining alone at fast food restaurants. They ordered meals and slipped into seats as discreetly as possible, so as not to arouse suspicion. Then they began to spy. They were looking for groups of diners that included an adult and at least one child under the age of 10. The three women, academic researchers from the fields of pediatrics, child development, and anthropology, needed to get close enough to their subjects to notice changes in facial expressions and tones of voice. They took copious notes. Their assignment was to observe, in the minutest detail, how children and their caregivers interacted with their personal mobile devices and also with each other. The resulting study was groundbreaking; it was the first to explore how parents were using personal devices around children. And its headline discovery was disturbing: The more caregivers were absorbed by their smartphones, the more harshly they treated the children they were with.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the study helped launch a new field of inquiry, one with roots decades earlier, in the midcentury burst of hand-wringing over kids sitting transfixed in the blue light of television screens. Whole libraries have been filled with research on TV and its psychological effects on children. Similarly, recent anxiety about teens “addicted” to the internet and social media—and, before that, video games—has led to reams of analysis on the effect these technologies have on kids. But the Boston restaurant study revealed a different question, a twist on the old media scares of the past: Just how are children being affected by the personal-tech habits of their parents?


wo years later, a group of researchers and academics from multiple disciplines came together at an invitation-only conference in Southern California to address questions related to parenting in the digital age. Among the invitees was Dr. Jenny Radesky, the pediatrician and researcher who led the fast-food-restaurant study, as well as psychologists, sociologists, and media-studies scholars. One purpose of the meeting was to review the literature on the subject so far, and to issue a general call for further studies. Much remains unknown on the subject of digital media use and parenting, but there has been more than enough research to raise serious concerns.

Such anxieties start with recent data suggesting that older generations are actually more avid users of social networks than their younger counterparts, and that parents are more likely to be active on such networks than non-parents. Why is this a concern? There is evidence that these digital experiences can have negative effects. Frequent social media use is also a risk factor—one of many, of course—for depression. Sarah Coyne, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, found that new mothers often compared themselves with other mothers on social media, and that this behavior was in turn associated with “higher levels of maternal depression.” Annual surveys conducted by The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg show that, since 2012, people feel increasingly ignored by others in their own family households because of smartphone use.

One of the conference invitees, Illinois State researcher Brandon McDaniel, recently coined a piece of jargon to describe the everyday distractions and interruptions to family life caused by smartphones and digital media: “technoference.” McDaniel and others have been attempting to map the effects of “technoference” on parent-child relationships. That such tech-induced intrusions are in fact disruptive has been well established. Depending on which study you choose to look at, adults on average check their smartphones as many as 80 or even 200 times each day. A 2015 investigation of caregivers and children on playgrounds found that kids had a harder time getting the attention of adults occupied with their smartphones than those who were distracted in other ways, such as talking to other adults. Still other research has turned up evidence that parents with young kids don’t speak to them as much when watching a screen. And, according to another study by Jenny Radesky, “parent mobile media has been associated with fewer mother-child interactions.”

The distracted parent is hardly a new phenomenon, to be sure. So what is dissimilar about a father tapping out a text message in 2018 and a 1950s dad sitting in his chair and ignoring his offspring from behind an unfurled newspaper? McDaniel, for one, believes the difference is categorical. “These devices capture our attention in a totally new way,” he says. Indeed, neurological tests show that smartphone use activates neurotransmitters in our brains that, in turn, reinforce the habit of checking our smartphone. “There’s something about the way these devices have been designed, and the kind of relationship that we have formed with them,” he says. “Yes, parents have been distracted forever, but the kind of engaging distraction that this device produces is something that the world has never seen before.”


ut even if technoference is real, and even if it is categorically different than previous forms of media distraction, is it having any kind of measurable, discernible influence on children and their development?

McDaniel and others maintain that the early research is in and the effects are measurable—and at least some of those effects appear to be harmful. Recently he teamed up with Radesky to statistically analyze questionnaires filled out online by 170 parents across the country. Published in the journal Child Development last November, the study found that mothers who reported a higher frequency of technological interruptions when interacting with their kids also tended to report a higher level of problem behaviors in those same kids, including both external acts, like tantrums, and more internal conduct, such as crying and sullenness.

In an even more recent study from 2017, BYU’s Sarah Coyne surveyed 1,200 adolescents and teenagers from around the country about their parents’ technology use habits. Though Coyne cautions that the study isn’t yet published and is still under peer review, she says that its “hot-off-the-presses findings” show that technoference was related to children reporting less parental warmth, and that 11 percent of teens “struggled quite a bit or a great deal to get their parent's attention when their parent was on their cell phone or tablet.” Within that 11 percent group, teens were more likely to cyberbully, to feel anxiety, and to be depressed.

Yes, parents have been distracted forever, but the kind of engaging distraction that this device produces is something that the world has never seen before.”

Parents, of course, are not completely unaware of the potential problems created by their own tech habits. Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of stories of guilt from parents. “It’s time that I could use for some meaningful communication between my daughter and me,” says one mom, describing her frequent scrolling of social-media feeds. “It’s a relationship-building opportunity, with my own child, wasted.”

According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical child psychologist in Boston and the author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, “One of the things that’s very rare in child development is to hear kids of all ages answer an open ended question the same way.” Through her research, in which she interviewed more than a thousand kids, from toddlers to undergraduates, she found that “little kids, four or five years old, will say things like, ‘My dad uses smartphone. It's a stupid phone.’ ‘My mom uses smartphone. It’s a stupid phone, because she said she would come read to me, or play a game, in two minutes, and she didn’t even come at all.’ It’s heartbreaking.”

Parental digital distraction most worries Steiner-Adair when it comes to infants. She warns that looking at your phone while feeding an infant, for example, deprives the child and its developing mind of crucial moments of connection and warmth. “You cannot hold the baby and feed them, and gaze in their eyes, and fill them with that interpersonal nourishment when you are texting with somebody else,” she says. And it’s not just the infant’s brain that requires these moments of connection. “Over time, if we let them, our babies calm us down. We learn how not to shriek, how to be patient. Babies and toddlers make us better parents, but you will not change as a parent if you’re constantly digitally distracted.”


teiner-adair may be on the alarmed side of the spectrum. Others who have studied tech and social media use in the family hold a more measured view. Some even see an upside. “I know some people have a gloom-and-doom take on media and screens,” says Stephanie Reich, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine. “I don't. I think there is a lot of benefit that can happen from them.” For example, she says, personal devices can be educational or offer opportunities for kids to connect with others across distances. And if there are times when parents feel overwhelmed or stressed, handing a phone to a child in order to get a break “is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Alarmism is as old as media studies itself, and every scholar cited here cautions that, when it comes to studying digital distraction in families, we live in a world of correlation and association and risk factors, not causation—the “C” word, as some in the social sciences call it. No researcher has yet furnished evidence that parental use of smartphones causes behavioral or development problems in children. “We’re not there in the research,” says Coyne.

In-depth investigations are underway, however. Reich, for example, is working on observational studies of very young kids, four and under, in public spaces. She and her students will examine the “quality of parent-child interactions” when smartphones are added to the equation. Coyne is in the middle of an ambitious “longitudinal” study that aims to follow 500 kids from Denver over the course of their entire childhood, starting at birth. Meanwhile, McDaniel has his own longitudinal study in the works, from which he has already culled a few insights. In his study, parents were surveyed at different points across a six-month period, during which time many of them reported a troubling pattern: their own technology distraction, followed by their children's behavioral problems, followed by higher parental stress, followed by more device distraction (since people often turn to technology for stress relief, other studies show). “There are these cycles that families get stuck in,” McDaniel says. “It's not necessarily important to try to identify a root cause.” Instead, he counsels, “If you can figure out the point at which it’s easiest to intervene, you can disrupt the cycle.”

So how do you disrupt it? It might be easier than you think.

For now at least, the expert advice is not revolutionary, and perhaps that’s a good thing. It simplifies the matter. First, psychologists advise, examine your own behavior honestly. Next, establish tech-free zones, covering both places and periods of time—at the table for dinner being the most common. “Even something as simple as that—planning a time where we’re just going to connect and be completely focused on one another—could work wonders in a lot of families,” says McDaniel. And, adds Steiner-Adair, it’s imperative to spend as much time as you can in tech-free play with children in the real world, and also dealing, sans devices, “with all the hard stuff that comes with being a family.” As she puts it, “We just haven’t been challenged as families in this way before. But we’re getting there, as more research comes out. Now, it’s about how to make sure you protect different modes of interaction with your children. How do you outsmart your smartphone?”

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