McDaniel and Radesky (2018) and many other researchers have been studying the interference caused by use of mobile devices on interpersonal interactions and on relationships – not just student-instructor but also romantic relationships (McDaniel & Coyne, 2016),  parent-child interactions (McDaniel & Radesky, 2018) and potential relationship dysfunction.

Factors that have been found to correlate with problematic, dependent or addicted mobile tech use include:

  • anxiety when devices are not nearby or use is prevented
  • poorer self-regulation
  • lower degree of mindfulness and metacognition
  • highly frequent automatic behaviour of checking phone
  • perception of a social norm to answer calls and texts immediately (McDaniel & Radesky, 2018)

McDaniel and Radesky (2018) note that research studying the effect of parents using their mobile tech around children have found that fewer parent-child interactions occur, and there is less responsivity to the child’s bids for the parent’s attention. And there are even signs of hostility from parents interrupted from their mobile tech by the child’s bid for attention!

In one study, using interviews, both parents and children are uncomfortable about this experience of “absent presence”. Much child development research has established the crucial role parental/care-giver “sensitive responsiveness” to the child’s needs and cues for the child to attain secure attachment and healthy social-emotional development. What children need is a positive warm and loving relationship with parents who pick up on their physical, social, cognitive and emotional cues, who respond to their needs.

Parents who are distracted by their mobile tech can’t also be responding to a child’s cues. Of course, numerous parental distractions occurred in previous generations, from survival demands, work demands, household tasks and the needs of other children or dependents. But the seemingly irresistible demands of our mobile tech  compelling our focused attention even when we know it is inappropriate is a new source of parental distraction.

Children, and adults as well, suffer emotional pain when they feel excluded by another, even momentarily. Social exclusion or ostracism “threatens basic psychological needs (belonging, control, meaningful existence, and self-esteem” (Wesselman, Ren & Williams, 2015, p. 1), and if this momentary exclusion becomes chronic, we tend to feel depressed or angry, withdraw socially, and feel low self-worth (Wesselman et al, 2015). It damages our self-esteem to feel excluded and ignored.

In the midst of a relational interaction, when the other pays attention to their tech instead of to you, there is a feeling that we have now been excluded from the private texted or emailed conversation, and a feeling of “disconnection” from the other. According to Relational-cultural theory (Engler, 2009), since our psychological well-being is so very strongly related to our relationships, especially in childhood but also in adulthood, relationship disconnections are a major source of psychological problems. Over time and with repeated episodes of disconnect, when one or the other in the midst of an interaction ignores us by repeatedly switching their attention to their tech, to answer a text or email, or worse, to send them, or even worse, to game or shop, these seemingly momentary disconnections can become a major source of dysfunction in the relationship.

Why? The Relational-cultural theory (Engler, 2009) suggests that much of our self-worth is rooted in our relationships. So when a friend or a parent moves their attention from your conversation with them to their tech, particularly when the friend is someone we value, the meaning we make of that is that we are far less valued then the text or email or Facebook posting conveyed by their tech. And because we don’t know who is contacting them, or the importance of the message, the feeling of social exclusion is strengthened. We imagine the worst. A casual texted comment or FB post from a mere acquaintance is more important than we are.

In childhood this is especially acute, since we are most vulnerable then to the effects of chronic disconnection in the attachment relationship with parents, and low self-esteem, depression and anxiety or anger and “acting out” can result. Relational-cultural theory suggests that chronic parental inaccessibility threatens the child’s healthy development of emotional maturity and empathy, leading to a cycle of later addictions and depression (Engler, 2009) (and possibly the child’s turn to their own always-accessible mobile device which never denies a child’s bid for response).

McDaniel and Radesky (2018) studied 170 families through surveys, several self-report scales (such as the Technology Device Interference Scale, Parenting Stress Index, etc.) and behavioural rating assessments of their children (such as the Child Behavioural Checklist which assess internalizing behaviour problems such as whining and sulking and externalizing behaviour problems such as temper tantrums and “acting out”).

40% of the mothers and 32% of the fathers self-reported their use of digital technology (usually their phone) was problematic. 89% of parents reported their use of their devices interfered with their relationships with their child. On average, about two devices interfered on a typical day, once or more (p. 105), 48% reporting 3 or more times a typical day.

The findings of this correlational study were that mothers’ and fathers’ (self-perceived) problematic digital tech use was significantly and highly correlated with interference in the parent-child relationships. And tech interference in the parent-child interactions was significantly correlated with greater child behaviour problems, more child screen time, poorer coparenting, higher depression and parenting stress.

As McDaniel and Radesky (2018) note, this study was correlational, so it is hard to know the causal direction. Maybe parents’ excessive attention to their phones leads them to ignore and neglect their children, who act out in response. Or maybe the child’s behaviour problems lead the parents to withdraw from the interactions through use of their devices, “to escape…or to regulate their own emotions” (p 107), as some research suggests. Possibly it is both, a bi-directional relationship. And maybe there is a third factor that leads parents to problematic use of their devices, such as anxiety, stress, mental health issues or other problems that independently relate to their children’s behaviour problems.

Bottom line – problematic digital technology use by parents predicted greater interference in the parent-child interactions, and maternal tech-caused interference predicted child behaviour problems.

Negative effects of tech-cause interference in interpersonal interactions, caused by excessive or inappropriately timed use of mobile devices,  may be an important direction for future research. And further, as with this study, the effect of this interference on the interpersonal relationship between instructor and student. Not that your instructor will whine, sulk or throw a temper tantrum if you engage in problematic texting or laptop use in class and thus ignore the instructor’s efforts to engage your attention. But studies have indicated that part of what increases student engagement and achievement are positive and friendly instructor-student relationship factors (Schneider and Preckel, 2016). Instructors may perceive student texting and off-topic laptop use as rude,  disengaged and bored with the class, just as a date might think you are rude or bored with them if you spend your time with them on your device.

Something to think about.

Engler, B. (2009). Personality theories: An introduction. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publ.

McDaniel, B. T. & Radesky, J. S. (2018). Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with child behaviour problems. Child Development, 89(1), 100-109. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12822

Wesselman, E. D., Ren, D., & Williams, K. D. (2015). Motivations for responses to ostracism. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(40), 1-6. doi: 10.3389/psyg.2015.0040