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

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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.

Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief
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.
Mark Spoonauer, LAPTOP Editor in Chief on
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  • PR Says:

    I wouldn't call it child abuse but I would call it child neglect. I have seen too many parents ignore their children cause they are on the internet.

  • Joolz H Says:

    Thank you for naming this what it is. I see it happening everywhere. Kids know when adults are not present or available to them and it does have an impact. Parenting is about interacting and guidance and connection.

  • Becca Says:

    I think that technology is really changing an entire generation of not only parents but also the children. Since my daughter was in 3rd grade she has wanted a cell phone because "everyone else has one." I have yet to give in. She wants a facebook and again, I have not budged! Friends and other mothers from school frequently make comments on how my children are outside. They are amazed that my kids will go outside! They frequently as how I made it happen and the answer is super simple every time... I kick them out! Just as my mother did and her mother before her! Kids need to be plugged in less and run around more!
    As for parents abusing their children by being plugged in. I think that there are some that do ignore their children and give into technology. My mother did not use a computer she did it with a book. I think that just the devised used has changed. The main thing to remember is that MANY mothers are working from home. While they may not be spending quality time with their children in this situation they are not sending their children off to daycare and they have some flexibility!
    I believe that we, as a society, need to unplug a little more often and engage in human interaction. Texting and messaging and social networks do not compare to sitting down and having a cup of coffee together!

  • Catherine Cheek Says:

    As an adult, your needs always come secondary to your child. Children can't be expected to play by themselves or entertain themselves; they need 24x7 chaperones to attend to them at all times. If your child is complaining that you are paying attention to something other than him or her, it is not because they are being selfish. Children are never selfish, and never ask for more than what is their due. If your child wants you to attend their sporting events, or watch them go down the slide for the twentieth time, or push them on the swing because they don't want to swing themselves, or even just sit there and watch while they sleep, it's your duty to do so. Finding these things boring means that you are a bad parent, and possibly a bad person. Trying to entertain yourself is unthinkable.

    Once you become a parent, you no longer have the right to attend to your own needs. Entertaining yourself, or attending to your business at the cost of your child's happiness is as cruel as giving them vegetables instead of candy. They need to be reminded that they are the center of the universe. Every time you make them play by themselves, or find their own shoes, or figure out their own games, you give them the illusion that they are expected to have some self-sufficiency. Don't let your child think that. Remember you are not raising a member of a family, who has a role and a duty within that family, but a little emperor or empress whose every desire must be attended to.

  • maevele Says:

    but is it in anyway more "neglectful" than when our parents would take us to the park and kick back under a tree reading while we played?

  • Sherman Unkefer Says:

    Ouch, this article hits too close to home. I've had to institute a "work time" and "not work time" since I work at home. My kids know when daddy is sitting at the laptop working it's "work time" but come 5 or 6 pm it's "not work time" and daddy closes the laptop and pays attention to them. Then of course, I go back to work after they're in bed.

  • Karen Auby Says:

    wow Mark. As hard as this is to admit, I can't even count the number of times my sons have said, "mom, get off the phone/computer!" So, your article broke my heart a little. Although, I do volunteer in their classrooms every week (obviously with my droid left in the car) and it's my uber-connected worklife that gives me that flexibility. Also, I turn off laptop and phone in the evening while doing the homework/dinner/bath/bed-time-story ritual... then its back on when they go to bed. not THAT bad, right?

  • aftermath Says:

    I agree with absolutely all of this. I also applaud you for putting your ideas together in a coherent package rather than just spouting off an opinion. Unfortunately, you've probably just signed up for a lot of hate for saying these things, but that's the price you pay for being right sometimes. As a parent, I see what you're talking about happening all of the time. I've even seen "moms" leave their infants to idly dangle on a swing and cry at the park while they prattle away with somebody on the phone. That's scary "parenting".

    Parents engaged with appliances in front of and instead of their children appears to be the norm and not the exception. Sadly, too often people mistake "can" do something for "should" do something, or, rather, they do something because they "can" instead of figuring out if they really should or shouldn't first. Smart phones create possibilities, but just because you "can" constantly give your attention over to a device doesn't mean that you should.

    My wife has a close girlfriend who is a social psychologist and who is constantly commenting that a smart phone is "no different than a gun", "no different than an electric razor", "no different than a hand mixer", "no different than a screw driver", or "no different than" any other portable personal item. These each have a few appropriate uses limited to a few specialized contexts, and it's never appropriate just to use these items whenever and wherever you want. To do otherwise is rude, inappropriate, and implies that you're either incapable of managing your life efficiently enough to prevent emergency usage scenarios from popping up all of the time, or you just don't have enough social awareness and maturity to appropriately measure the fitness of an activity to your environment. Either way, it's a sign that you have a problem with your social functioning. She constantly "jokes" with her husband that "he should reach for the gun first" when he goes to answer his phone out in public. Initially, this was very odd for me to hear, but now I've come to realize that if you're in an situation where pulling out a gun (or electric razor) is going to create an awkward situation for the people around you, then your smart phone probably isn't appropriate either. As you might expect, her children don't play with electronic gadgets either unless its a deliberate activity at home.

    In terms of my technology and my children, we've taken her advice to heart. Before reaching for an appliance, I ask myself "Is this contact NECESSARY, or can I do with out it?" and "Is this an emergency of MY creation or was it inevitable?" In other words, it's not enough to "need" to take this call if it's just somebody calling me who I haven't effectively set my boundaries with. People can't expect that I'm willing to talk whenever/wherever just because they are, and they need to be efficient and effective when they have my time. It's not enough to "need" to look something up if it's something that I actually could have done before but didn't or if it's something that I could easily do at a more appropriate time later.

    Technology is like salads. Eating salads should make your life better and could be an important part of a healthy lifestyle. However, many people use eating a salad as an excuse to eat junk food or dessert or as a way to justify skipping exercise. That's just not right. In much the same way, technology should be a tool that helps parents be better parents (and people be better people). However, it seems like more often than not it actually prevents parents from being better parents and encourages them to be even worse (the same with most people).

  • Oliver Max Says:

    Agree with you for the most part. But it's not child abuse. That is taking it too far. It's bad parenting. But abuse or neglect? No.

  • Mark Spoonauer Says:

    Thanks for your input. Agreed that abuse is a strong word and your point is well taken. I do say neglect as well in the piece. I would say neglect is a form of abuse.

  • Kimberley Says:

    I enjoyed your article and do think "WE ALL NEED THIS WAKE UP CALL." When we visit the pool I make sure I get the pool and play with my children. We can't let the ease of technology lure us away from time with our children. At my son's ball game a dad was on his laptop the whole time. I never bring my iPhone to the game. I want to fully be there. However, because my business is 90% digital, I'm at risk because I have my iPhone w/me all day. Most moms, I do believe, feel very guilty when we use technology in front of our kids. Especially when they say, "Mom get off the computer!" I completely agree with you and see many parents texting frequently at the park, which saddens me. Whenever I use the word, 'abuse' in any of my posts, it really angers my readers, so I hope you're ready for some pretty heated comments on this post Mark. Maybe you could of used the word, 'neglect.'

  • Jimothy Holmes III Says:

    I dunno, that moms is looking pretty hot to me. Kids has a lollie, could be worse :p

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