Parenting in an Age of Digital Distraction

Published December 19, 2019

By Fran Johnston

With the rise of technology, particularly via tablets and smart phones, has come increased worry over the impact screens are having on “digital natives” – the so-called kids who have grown up fluid with technology. And while there is a lot of research, commentary and advice on how to handle kids and digital devices, there has been much less focus on how technology is impacting parenting.

As a parent of a 3-year old and an 8-month old, I had been very careful to manage my kids’ exposure to screens, but had put almost no thought into how my personal screen time was impacting them. And, for me, screen time is always a slippery slope. It starts with me just checking work email while prepping dinner during key project deadlines, and then, before I know it, every night, I’m skimming the news, checking Instagram or even mindlessly shopping online, during the precious hours a day I have with my kids before bed time. 

In the book, The Big Disconnect, Catherine Steiner-Adair explains that parental distraction due to devices might be harming kids as much as the actual screens themselves. She explains that, the down hours at home once filled with conversation and interactivity are now filled with each family member isolated in their own digital vortex. Emerging research is also showing that parental distraction can impact the social-emotional development of their children and leave kids feeling frustrated by the need to compete for their parents’ attention, not with other siblings, but with work email, social media, texting and more. 

In one study of 8-13-year old’s, one third of the kids reported feeling unimportant when their parents used their phones during meal times, conversations, and other family time. When interviewed, kids used the words “sad,” “mad,” “angry” and “lonely” to describe their distracted parents’ impact on them. These overwhelmingly negative feelings and the inability to manage them could explain why children and teens are more likely to act out when parents are using smart phones or devices.

Leaning on technology is often tempting (and sometimes very necessary!) especially when we are overworked and tired. But, whether its online shopping while feeding a baby, handing a tablet to a screaming toddler or choosing to scan Facebook instead of being intentional about engaging teenage children, if not kept in check, these choices will erode the relational bonds we have with our children. It can keep them from developing the capacity for deep, intimate relationships that are so critical to well-being. Perhaps this is why a 2018 Cigna study found that Gen Z and Millennials are the most lonely Americans in society today. As the world gets more dominated by technology, it requires that parents be awake and intentional about maintaining the sacredness of face to face family time for everyone’s benefit. Because of this, every family needs to figure out the best ways for them to preserve undistracted connection IRL (in real life), which could include:  

  • Putting away your phones between the hours of 5-8pm until the kids are in bed (for young families)
  • Letting co-workers know that you won’t be available on email during certain times due to a digital detox (or setting an away message letting people know when you are unavailable)
  • Dedicating 15-20 minutes a day where your kids have your absolutely undivided attention for an activity of their choice (distraction can be digital but can also come in the form of house chores and social events)
  • Protecting family dinners or designating certain nights of the week that are activity-free
  • Ensuring that each family member has the opportunity to report out on their day each evening
  • Limiting the number of activities family members are participating in – including the parents! It’s easy to say “yes” to a new opportunity… but at what cost? 
  • Building a family culture of inquire – ask your kids lots of questions and encourage them to show the same interest in their siblings and friends

Ultimately, the impact technology has on our children, and our parenting, is up to us to control. By being mindful of the time we allow technology to silo us from our family, and by taking steps to limit our exposure, we can seek to find a balance in our days, and provide an example for our children.



AVG Technologies. (2015). Kids competing with mobile phones for parents’ attention. Retrieved from

Matthews, D. (2017). Why parents really need to put down their phones. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Radesky, J., Kistin, C., Zuckerman, B., Nitzberg, K., Gross, J., Kaplan-Sanoff, M., Augustyn, M., & Silverstein M. (2014). Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics, 133(4), e843-849.

Steiner-Adair, C. & Barker, T. (2014). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks.

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