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Parenting While Connected Isn't Multitasking, It's Child Abuse

It was a pretty disturbing sight. One day this summer I decided to take my two kids to a local park for a picnic lunch and some fun on the playground. And what did we encounter just as we plopped down on a bench? A mother arguing with her husband on her cell phone in front of her kids. This went on for five minutes, until they got in their car and drove away. Playtime over.

I looked to my right and saw another mom pushing her daughter on the swing with one hand and checking for incoming text messages with the other. Next to her was another mom pushing her daughter with two hands. Guess which woman’s child was smiling and laughing and which one had a blank expression?

Yes, driving while texting is dangerous, but so is parenting while connected. It’s neglect, plain and simple.

If your child has to constantly ask you to put your BlackBerry down—or your laptop, or your iPad—when you should be paying attention to him or her, there’s a problem. And I’m not talking about an occasional glance at your inbox. I’m referring to those parents who obsessively use their devices to the point where they might as well not be present at all.

According to a recent study conducted by MIT researcher Sherry Turkle, children feel hurt when they’re forced to play second fiddle to their parents’ tech toys. Apparently, we get so engrossed in what’s on our tiny screens and so addicted to that constant flow of fresh data that we inadvertently tune out the world, including our kids. The author of this study has an upcoming book appropriately titled Alone Together.

Before you label me a holier-than-thou jerk, I readily admit that during my playground visit I used my smart phone. Twice. The first time, I wanted to snap a shot of my son and daughter lying next to each other in a little tunnel—feet propped up on the ceiling. The second time I checked my e-mail while the two were sipping their juice boxes, despite the fact that I had set up an out-of-office message. Sure, it was just a few seconds, but why did I bother?

You could blame our inattentiveness on the fact that today’s workplace demands that we’re constantly connected, as well as the expectation that we respond to messages almost as soon as they’re sent. But that’s an easy out. As adults, we need to stop justifying damaging behavior and set a better example for our children, engaging them fully when we have the opportunity.

To be clear, I’m not saying using tech in front of children is a bad thing. My kids really get a kick out of education apps and interactive stories on the iPad. I also let my daughter play a game of Angry Birds occasionally on my phone. But it’s also easy for kids to get addicted. And if we lend the impression we care more about our tech than our flesh and blood, we shouldn’t be surprised when they mirror what they see. A few weeks ago I observed a dad scolding his son outside the barber shop for not putting his Game Boy away. Hmmm, I wonder where he learned that?

Who knows, maybe tech could be part of the solution. Like a “Family” mode for our phones that lets only truly urgent calls or messages through and locks the rest of the phone down with the exception of the camera. Whatever it is, we need to do something, because parenting while connected isn’t parenting at all.

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.