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Most parents try to restrict their wards’ screen time. Some families set strict TV-watching timings on weekdays, with some homes banning TV altogether during the school week. Even in homes where such rules are not enforced, parents typically cannot stop themselves from asking children to “do something else" besides playing video games or watching YouTube. Few parents, however, bother to curtail their own media use at home; working parents are tuned to their devices 24x7.

Family dynamics are changing. What are the consequences for parents and children as both generations grapple with gadgets?

In a study published in Pediatrics in March, Jenny Radesky of the Boston University Medical Center, US, and colleagues studied the effect of mobile use by adults on family relationships. They quietly observed the care-giver-child interactions of 55 groups, comprising one-two adults and one-three children, in fast food restaurants in 15 neighbourhoods around Boston.

A major theme that emerged was the care-giver’s level of absorption with the device. Close to 30% of adults were engaged with the device almost continuously through the meal, even while eating or talking to their children. Around 16% of adults used their mobiles intermittently, switching between attending to their children and their phones. When the parents were busy with their devices, the children tended to display attention-seeking behaviour. Typically, the adults did not respond immediately to the provocation, but if the child persisted, the care-giver would either speak in a scolding voice, repeat an instruction in a robotic tone and, at times, react physically, like pushing the child’s hand away.

How many of us are guilty of similar behaviour? Whether at the dinner table, in the park or the swimming pool, parents nowadays feel compelled to answer the phone, no matter what we may be doing at that moment. So, in the midst of “quality time" with children, our attention is suddenly drawn by something or someone else, leaving the child at a loose end.

In her 2011 book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology And Less From Each Other, Sherry Turkle points to an interesting role reversal: “Often it is children who tell their parents to put away the cellphone at dinner."

We may believe that as long as we are keeping an eye on the children no harm can really come to them. However, a September 2012 article in The Wall Street Journal discussed the alarming dangers that accompany disengaged parenting. Titled The Perils Of Texting While Parenting, the article cites data from the US’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which shows that the number of emergency room admissions of children below age 5 increased 12% between 2007 and 2010. Given the fact that childhood injuries have been dropping steadily from the 1970s, mainly due to safer playgrounds, safety belts and staircase gates, the recent increase is worrisome.

Some parents don’t think they are being negligent when they are texting or checking phones for updates while also watching their children. But umpteen studies indicate that humans are poor at multitasking, though we may not realize it. Just as talking on the cellphone is hazardous when you’re driving, our constant use of devices makes us less mindful as parents.

Ironically, while technology is turning us into more distracted parents, it is also yoking us to our children. When children or teenagers are given cellphones by parents, Turkle says, “the gift typically comes with a contract: Children are expected to answer their parents’ calls." So when children begin to navigate the world on their own, just as they should, parents often trail along. So when a child cycles to a friend’s house, we cannot resist texting, “Let me know when you reach." Likewise, when a child goes for the first time to the neighbourhood department store, the child reaches for his phone, “Apple juice is not available. What should I buy?" Instead of taking such decisions for himself, the child relies on his parent. As a result, the child’s ability to take decisions is curbed.

Recently, I was waiting for my appointment at a dental clinic. A set of parents and their teenaged children walked in. Within seconds, every member of the family was plugged into a device. For the next half-hour, they were busy in their virtual worlds and did not exchange a single glance or word with each other.

If such interactions become the norm for families, an essential feature of our humanity is eroding before our screen-addicted eyes. None of us may be able to give up our devices, but we should set aside screen-free spaces and times. And we should make a tradition of not allowing pings and beeps to interrupt family dinners, celebrations and rituals. After all, families play a pivotal role in moulding identities.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.

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