This is worth celebrating: Today's parents spend more time with their children than in generations past. We're leaning into parenthood, loving the experience of raising children and taking pride in the roles of "Mom" or "Dad" often above all else.
But are we confusing quantity with quality—specifically when it comes to the "continuous partial attention" we offer when we're actually preoccupied by screens?
"We have yet to discover the outcome of a generation whose parents are constantly staring at screens, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying the results are probably not so great," says Jasmin Terrany, licensed mental health counselor and the author of Extraordinary Mommy: A Loving Guide to Mastering Life's Most Important Job.
The good news is that solution isn't to ditch your phone or even to go without checking your messages during the daytime. Instead, experts tells Motherly we need to look at our desire to constantly multitask—and recognize that setting boundaries is good for us as well as our children.
Distracted parenting doesn’t go unnoticed by kids
Mounting research backs this up: According to a recent study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the "frequent" use of smartphones among parents undermines the relationships with their children. "The key message is that, as enticing and useful as they might be, smartphones can make spending time with your children feel less meaningful than it would otherwise be," the study's co-author Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia told PsyPost.
Although Kushlev's study found smartphone distraction has less pronounced effects on the parental relationship during casual encounters at home than during family outings, being preoccupied with a screen at home has other consequences.
"Think of the stereotypical husband and wife having a conversation while a sports game is playing on TV. The husband's attention is split and the wife is frustrated because she doesn't sense that she's really being listened to," Ofra Obejas, a licensed clinical social worker, tells Motherly. "Same with parent and child… And the only 'power' the child has is to throw a tantrum."
Especially among young children who aren't yet capable of verbalizing their need for attention, the consequences can be dramatic: Researchers from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child say "serve and return" parental interactions are foundational to brain development in young children. But if parents repeatedly fail to engage in this "conversational duet," psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek was clear to The Atlantic: "Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cell phones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens."
More research has shown that verbal responses alone aren't good enough, especially if the parent's body language sends a different message—as could be the case if you are "playing" with your kids while also engaged in a texting argument with your partner.
"Non-congruent body language actually causes anxiety and distress to children, even babies just a few months old," explains Urszula Klich, licensed clinical psychologist and president of the Southeast Biofeedback and Clinical Neuroscience Association. "Having congruent body language and positive messages helps to create a strong positive attachment to parents and later relationships as opposed to anxious ones."
What can we do to break out of “continuous partial parenting mode”?
Former Apple executive Linda Stone coined the term "continuous partial attention" in the mid-1990s to describe the way people were able to be tapped into anything at a moment's notice and how it came at the expense of full, undivided concentration.
In the two decades since, the problem has only deepened. But the ubiquity of phones, tablets and other screens shouldn't get all the blame. "The issue isn't the devices themselves, it's that they control us, we don't control them," says Terrany. "We are so often reacting and responding, rather than proactively setting limits—deciding when is phone time and when is family time."
But remember: It’s also healthy for kids to entertain themselves
Ironically, we have also grown uncomfortable with the notion that kids shouldn't have our attention 24/7. Boredom teaches them creativity, boosts their imaginations and improves their overall mental health. In other words: There's nothing wrong with encouraging your child to play solo while you respond to a call rather than trying to do both at once.
By doing that, we can begin to differentiate when our presence is actually needed. "I find that a simple question gets to the source of most issues, 'Do you want more attention right now?'" says Terrany. "If I can give more attention in those moments, I do. If I can't, I acknowledge and let them know when they will receive it."
As for the question of whether quality or quantity of time is more meaningful, Klich says the healthiest scenario is actually a balance of both. "Both often become a point of guilt for parents and sometimes the awareness that a parent is not engaging enough leads to attempts to spend more time," she says. "But, if we are not careful, that is distracted time."
The fact of the matter is there is a time and place for checking texts and social media just as there is a time for giving our kids undivided attention—and while many of today's parents are pros at multitasking, this is one area where we could all benefit from concentrating on one thing at a time.