What happens when your toddler's basic need for love and attention is forced to compete, day in and day out, with your screens?
This topic currently weighs heavily on my shoulders and pulls at my conscience as I try to figure out the healthiest ways to share my world with a three-year-old toddler.
Not long ago, I was smacked in the head with thought that I'm in danger of raising a daughter with a lifelong, vicious hunger for attention.
I was re-experiencing a nagging memory from last weekend of us sitting together in our parked car.
She was so excited to connect with me, so hungry for togetherness.
My daughter's favorite CD (and strangely enjoyable for adults...even on repeat), Preschool of Rock, was playing as my eyes wandered onto my phone to check my email for no good reason.
I looked up at my daughter after 30 seconds of pointless phone use and she locked eyes with me and yelled, "Hiiii!" as though we were just reunited after three months apart. She danced in her seat to the music now that she had my full attention back, and she expected me to follow her lead.
She had been waiting for me to make eye contact with her, but I chose my screen over her gorgeous blue eyes.
I was disturbed by my neglect and the enthusiasm behind her five-second "Hi." She was so excited to connect with me, so hungry for togetherness. Thirty seconds before my screen scan, we were merrily bopping to the music, but my auto-pilot interrupted this precious moment.
Nothing emergent necessitated my need to look down at my phone. It was purely a screen-checking habit getting the best of me (or should I say taking the best from me?). Let's just say that I consider myself an attentive dad, but just like everyone else with a smartphone, I often don't distinguish between the good and bad times for mindless phone checking.
This simple experience is something that probably repeats dozens of times a day for my daughter, and probably much more on the weekends.
What happens to a child who grows up with tens of thousands of memories of her parents interrupting conversations, tender moments, meals, walks, and couch time to check a screen?
My educated guess is that children develop attention-seeking behaviors in response to competing with screens. In toddlerhood, they tantrum or show mild protest to get their parents' attention back. In teenagehood and adulthood, the need for attention manifests in more complex and self-destructive ways.
The quality of attention a parent pays to her child while they communicate with one another, as well as the frequency and predictability of disruptions in communication, probably determines how psychologically damaging the incessant checking of screens is to a growing child.
So what do I recommend to avoid raising an attention-hungry child?
Here are seven screen-related suggestions equivalent to making a greater investment in the mental health of your children:
1. Most importantly, when you are around your children, commit to checking your phone or other screen less often. Just start with a simple declaration that you're committed to giving your children a higher grade of attention. Say it out loud so someone can hear you. Hear your own word to yourself so your integrity matters more.
2. Think of the one or two places where you are most likely to commit the worst kid neglect due to screens. Target those contexts first. Even a mild reduction in screen checking will make a difference to your child.
3. If you do need to check your screen, do it in a predictable manner. Tell your child how long you plan to look at your screen and then have the integrity to give them your undivided attention once the time expires. If you must keep checking your phone, offer a warning that your attention will be temporarily suspended.
4. Never use screen checking as an attention-withdrawing punishment. That creates a painful association between your technology and neglect.
5. Just because there isn't, to my knowledge, a solid base of empirical evidence linking screen use to attention-hungry children, doesn't mean you should ignore this potentially painful and avoidable problem you may be creating for your child.
Take a step back and observe the love triangle between you, your children and your screens. Don't be surprised if you discover your own sobering evidence that your children crave your attention in a disturbing and unhealthy way as a result of the competition you've created.
6. Ask yourself how good the QUALITY of your quality time is with your children. If you're checking your phone every few minutes when you're face-to-face with your kids, then just know that you are teaching them that they have to go to extreme measures to gain people's attention. (Click here for more powerful tips for improving the quality of your quality time in your important relationships.)
That sounds painful to me when I think of my child having to endure countless, unnecessary moments of being chosen second to a screen.
7. The hardest thing to do for most people is to simply turn off their phone or leave it in another location where it can't be easily accessed. I recommend creating daily rituals with your kids that don't involve a screen. You'll see how much you and your children will look forward to this time. For example, when it's freezing outside and we're stuck indoors, my daughter and I will run around in the lobby of our building like wild animals. My phone is off during this time. (Click here for more on the signs that your phone dependency has gotten out of hand.)
Can you place yourself in the shoes of a person who has grown up with a memory of 100,000+ moments of wanting her parents' attention, but had to wait for them to finish checking their messages or social media feed?
That sounds painful to me when I think of my child having to endure countless, unnecessary moments of being chosen second to a screen. I've already tried these recommendations out on myself in the process of writing this post and it feels great to give my daughter a less interrupted version of me.
Some parting words...
High quality attention is hard to find these days, but easy to give if it really matters to you.
Don't teach your children that they only deserve part of your attention, or that life is about competing with an iPhone or an android for parental love.
Your children will perpetuate the same lack of attention to the people they love if it's repeatedly modeled for them by their parents.
I will leave you with this...Screens are memory killers. In order to build powerful and comforting memories of parent-child bonding that you and your kids will fondly recall for years and years, there can't be a personal screen invading that moment. You need undivided attention to create a lasting memory.
A moment of choosing your screen over your child is a memory lost.
This post presents a difficult challenge, but it's as important as anything you'll have to teach your children, especially as personal technology evolves to become even more captivating.
Please share your thoughts with me here. I will respond to questions and comments.
This post was originally published on Techealthiest. Dr. Greg Kushnick is an innovative clinical psychologist who blogs about how to live healthy with your technology.
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