It’s a sad scene to witness. A child is ecstatic after doing a series of cartwheels or finally getting across the monkey bars for the first time on their own. They are pleading, almost desperately, trying to get the attention of their mother or father, who is too absorbed in their smart phone to notice their child’s accomplishment or even look up from their screen.
If enough of these moments happen during a child’s development, emerging research is showing it can have a profoundly negative effect on both kids and the adults who parent them. And it is for this reason that the Warwick Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse has launched a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of putting down the devices that rule our lives and taking time to live in the moment.
“Disconnect to Reconnect,” as the campaign is called, strives to get the attention of parents about the importance of face-to-face interaction with their children, and how balancing screen time with family time doesn’t need to be made into some kind of unattainable goal – but rather a simple commitment to heeding the developmental needs of your children.
“Parents have a device constantly with them, even during meal time,” said Jacqueline Ferreira, director of the Early Intervention at the Trudeau Center. “So, they’re not getting that socialization when it’s appropriate. Or the TV is on while they’re eating. There’s so much going on in the environment around them and parents aren’t even aware of it sometimes.”
“I think we need to raise awareness,” said Ruth Crawford, a member of the Parents as Teachers program within Warwick schools. “I think it’s become so second nature to have this [phone] attached to us that we don’t even think about it anymore. We respond without thinking, and we’re not thinking about the impact it has on our kids.”
Crawford said that these types of distracted interactions or outright ignored moments can lead to serious consequences, including behavioral problems.
“You’re teaching them that this is the priority. Not them,” she said, holding up her phone. “They’ve learned [throwing tantrums] is what they need to do to get your attention.”
The campaign is based around a competition, where kids from all grade levels at Warwick Public Schools have been tasked with a theme – such as “play with me, tech free” – that they then turn into a poster. Each school will choose a winner, and the posters will be displayed at the Warwick Public Library throughout July. The winning signs will also be incorporated into signs to be put up throughout the city in places where parents and kids hang out as a reminder to be present.
“We’re on our phones constantly for necessary purposes, but then it kind of morphs into unnecessary purposes,” said Karen Ostrowsky, project manager for the Trudeau Center’s Early Childhood Intervention Program and a longtime member of the Coalition. “We’re losing the opportunities, those teaching moments with our kids. It’s about those lost moments.”
Advocates for the campaign stress that the message is not that technology is evil, or that you can never go on your phone around your kids, but that balance is the most important aspect.
“There is going to be a time and place where we need to be on our devices. This is how we get some things done and there’s no changing that,” said Crawford. “What we want to raise awareness of is to schedule time where you disconnect and focus on being in the moment.”
Crawford brought up an example of taking her teenage children to a week-long getaway in the middle of nowhere in Vermont. No cell phone service, no internet – just board games, time on the lake and one another.
“My kids truly resented that idea before we went. I had a lot of grumbling that I had to deal with on the way up,” she said. “But at the end of the week, my teenagers came to me and asked if we could do it again. I think, once they experienced being able to have down time where they could just be themselves without having to be on – because their devices are constantly on them – they actually relaxed.”
Cameron Kadek, a parent of a first grader and soon-to-be Kindergartener at Hoxsie Elementary, wholeheartedly agrees with the idea of prioritizing real interactions and minimizing time spent behind screens.
“Just 15 minutes a day is the bare minimum that parents need to interact with their kids face to face, whether it’s reading them a story or playing games or anything. That seems so minimal,” she said. “So, this project and bringing awareness to the fact that you don’t have to get rid of your phone, but that little bit of interaction is going to give them a confidence boost, they’ll be less likely to be upset.”
Kadek talked about how taking time to go to the park or a simple walk through the woods can make a big difference.
“The world is so fast now. We go on walks just to slow down and to just have that,” she said. “Even if you’re at the park but you don’t have your phone out, and you’re noticing little things like dandelions and ladybugs. Just slow the world down.”
It is probably the most complicated aspect of being a parent in the modern era, and it is a question without any truly authoritative answer. How do you balance the amount of time you let your kid spend with technology in a world that is rapidly becoming completely based on its use?
“My son thinks I’m a monster because he only gets an hour [a day],” said Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi, who is also father of a 10-year-old son. Sinapi said that he doesn’t limit time watching educational television, but also tries to encourage his son to play with toys like Legos or to read books.
Sinapi said he was encouraged to join to spread the Coalition’s campaign due to his own past experiences and his interest in the subject area.
“When I was young, that’s how my parents dealt with me. ‘Here’s some stuff, go away.’ So I would have electronics and I’d be on it all the time,” he said. “It’s unfulfilling, even for the kid. There’s other stuff you’d rather do.”
Sinapi said it was important for parents to think about the possible consequences of too much technology use by children. Not just the potential societal consequences of a child being exposed to inappropriate content or learning things before they’re mature enough to handle them, but also physical consequences.
“Kids don’t understand that you have this device, but there’s consequences,” he said. “Say you use it with the lights off. Your eyes aren’t okay with that, it hurts them. How close it is or how far away it is. A lot of parents don’t know to teach that.”
He said that, even if you don’t want to deprive your children of electronics, there is still an opportunity to turn those interactions into ones of shared enjoyment between the parent and child.
“Instead of them just playing a game, you can play with them,” he said. “That’s a thing that people forget. It’s like, fine, you don’t want to deny them electronics for whatever reason, but you can do it with them and experience it together rather than put a wall up between you.”
The challenge of balancing technology has become even more difficult as education has increasingly moved into an online world of Google Classroom and Chromebooks. Parents used to be able to remove technology from children as a form of punishment, but that is not so possible in such a world.
“That’s the current challenge for parents today, they can’t actually always say, ‘No, you can’t be on your devices right now,’ even when there is a reason to be concerned,” Crawford said.
So the advice given by the experts and advocates is to simply be more aware. Find time every day to have real, non-electronic based interactions with your children. By raising awareness to both kids and parents about the importance of this effort, the hope is that children, same as adults, can stress the importance of putting down the phones and tablets and enjoying one another’s company.
“The goal is not only to teach the kids and teach the parents, but to give the kids the tools to teach the parents. It helps,” Sinapi said. “If your kids stops you and says, ‘Look, you should get off your phone and here’s why,’ it’s like, whoa. That hurts.”