The best gift you can give your kids this holiday season is to put down your phone

Studies show children need your time and attention more than they need any gift under the tree.
Studies show children need your time and attention more than they need any gift under the tree.
Image: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
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Holidays can be a stressful time for parents. When kids don’t have daycare or school to fill their days, they expect constant entertainment. Then there’s present shopping, meal cooking, and the possibility of extended family descending on you. You’d be forgiven for wanting to hunker down on the couch with your phone and tune it all out.

But a body of research on child development tells us that’s a bad idea.

And yet technology is increasingly getting in the way of the crucial interactions between parents and children. In 2017, Brandon McDaniel, an Indiana-based researcher on family relationships, and behavioral pediatrician Jenny Radesky surveyed 170 US families with children under five about their tech use and their child’s behavior. Only 11% of the parents who participated said technology didn’t interfere with their interactions with their child; 48% reported that this happened three or more times a day. McDaniel even coined a word to describe this phenomenon: “technoference.

How can parents’ tech use harm children?

When children are growing up, their brain develops at astonishing speed, which affects their ability to regulate emotions, focus, interact with friends, and do well in school. In the early years, the interactions that children have with people around them serves as crucial feedback, which helps build brain connections so that they can learn about themselves and where they fit in the world. What babies and toddlers need most are loving, responsive, and attentive adults to help them learn and thrive.

Child development experts call these kinds of interactions between caregivers and child “serve-and-return,” meaning that a child “serves” up an interest in something, and an adult “returns” that interest with a word of encouragement, a facial expression, or a question. Serve-and-return interactions are “both expected and essential,” according to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, and “their absence is a serious threat to a child’s development and well-being.” But they do require the adult’s full attention; if you’re reading emails, it’s easy to miss the fact that your baby is pointing at a shape in a book and wondering what it is—a prime brain-building moment.

When parents are distracted by technology, it disturbs the connection between them and their children. Experiments conducted in the US have shown that older children can act out (pdf) as a result and little kids also become more irritable or hyper-active. “Infants and toddlers figure out the world by watching what their parents are doing,” says Radesky, but when parents look at a screen, their facial expressions flatten, which makes it more difficult for little kids to infer how they are feeling. “There’s no social information there for the baby or the child to read.”

Distracted parents could also be failing to teach their child important skills, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and expert in infant language development. In a 2017 experiment (pdf), she and her co-authors showed that, when parents tried to teach their 2-year-old words but were interrupted by a phone call, the toddlers didn’t learn the words, whereas the ones whose parents were not interrupted did learn them.

How to limit tech for the holidays

There are a few reasons why the holidays can bring about increased tech use for parents and children. The first is that “parents and kids use technology as a way to just check out for a little bit when they’re stressed out,” says Radesky. Second, computer games and electronics are some of the most popular Christmas gifts for US consumers. Third, according to Radesky, is that the holidays may trigger in some people the urge to “post all of your experiences” on social media. “We now have this norm of self-display all the time, and I would love for parents to be mindful of how they’re creating that norm for their children too,” she says.

So, what can stressed-out parents do this holiday season to control the urge to scroll down their screens in the presence of children? Here are a few things that might help:

  • Become aware of how often you do it, says Hirsh-Pasek, and ask yourself, “in this moment, am I in this moment?”
  • Tone down the photos. It can be tempting to snap a hundred iPhone shots of your children unwrapping presents, but when we do, says Hirsh-Pasek, “what we’re doing is not watching our child do an activity, we’re watching the phone watch our child do an activity.”
  • Put your phone in another room for two crucial points of the day, like meal time and bed time, says Radesky. Or try it for an entire day, she adds, echoing widespread calls for a digital Sabbath.
  • Build tech time into a daily schedule. It’s tough to keep kids entertained during an entire day’s worth of unstructured time. Radesky suggests writing out a schedule of activities (like ice-skating or crafts), or a list of goals for the day (like baking cookies for the neighbors). Include a set amount of time for screen use in the schedule; when that’s over, put the device in a basket or in another room and get started on the list.
  • Make that list your screensaver. You’ll be reminded every time you look at your screen that you’ve got better things to do that day.

Every family will come up with the strategies that work best for them. But by not doing anything at all to limit your tech use over the holidays, says Hirsh-Pasek, you could be inadvertently sending signals to young children that your phone “is as important as [they] are.”