Have a difficult child? You might be on your phone too much
Why technoference is wrecking your family
Durban teacher Rekha Singh* had no idea that keeping up with her Facebook friends' lives and checking out her celeb crush's latest Instagram post was distressing for her two young daughters - until they sat her down.
An embarrassed Singh said she didn't realise that the fear of missing out was ruining her relationship with her children. So she had to make a concerted effort to curb her social media habit.
South African children are increasingly having to compete with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram for a bit of love and attention from their parents."Technoference" - the habit of moms and dads scouring work e-mail, liking Instagram posts or updating their Facebook status during family time - is on the increase. It is also found to spark kids' bad behaviour.
A new study by researchers from the University of Michigan's CS Mott Children's Hospital and Illinois State University found that children's behaviour problems could be linked to parents spending a lot of time on their smartphones or tablets.
The study looked for instances of technoference - a term coined by researchers to describe technology-based interruptions or interference in parent-child interaction.
Researchers asked 170 two-parent American families about how much they used their smartphones, tablets and laptops, and how often they interrupted a conversation or activity with their child when they used these devices.
About half the parents said technology typically interrupted their parent-child time three or more times a day.
The study suggested that even low or seemingly normal amounts of technology-related interference were associated with child behaviour problems such as whining, sulking, hyperactivity and tantrums.
Child and social media experts said the situation was no different in South Africa, as the fear of missing out on what was transpiring on social media eroded family time.
"I must admit that I was guilty of this until my daughter pointed it out to me," said Singh. "I was so embarrassed. I have made a concerted effort not to do it anymore and they have noticed it too. Their dad on the other [hand] ... guilty."
Jenny da Silva, a Johannesburg educational psychologist, is seeing instances of technoference among her clients."This is usually something that comes out in therapy with the child and then becomes part of psychoeducation with the parent," she said. "The parents are taught how to set aside time in which to engage solely with the child. Boundaries with technology are also taught and the science behind why this is important.
"As work demands become more pressured, parents are often on their phones or devices constantly. Many parents also only get some down time when they come home and will often escape into social media. This can and often does interfere with family time.
"Children will often act out as a way of getting attention from their parents. They may feel that their parents are not present or interested in them and then will act out," said Da Silva.
A 14-year-old, who did not want to be named, complained that his mom was often distracted by social media.
"I often feel that I have to compete with Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for her attention.
"That makes me frustrated, mad or sad, depending on why I need her attention. She does need to be on social media for work, but when I need to talk to her, I feel she is too distracted to pay attention to me."
The teen said that although he did not think his mother was a "bad mom", he did feel neglected at times.
Technoference was linked to the phenomenon of "absent presence", said Dr Lori Eddy, a counselling psychologist.
"Many leading experts on parenting emphasise the need for connectedness to foster healthy parent-child relationships, and constant distraction by smartphones, whether for work or social media purposes, makes it hard for parents to be present and connected," she said.Mike Saunders, a social media expert, said: "I have even seen kids specifically ask parents to stop looking at their phones in order to make sure they have their parents' attention. Kids are also learning that 'technology time' is more important than 'people time' as they mimic this behaviour in their parents."
Mother of three and blogger Riona Jagathpal said she had managed to strike a balance between family life and online life.
"My Instagram is my main platform," she said. "If I am compiling a post and the girls are with me, I explain to them what I'm doing and they always seem interested to learn what mom has to say and do.
"To be able to prioritise and know when to switch off and spend time with the kids is crucial," said Jagathpal.
* Not her real name