'Children are complaining about neglect & the reason is smartphones'

Technoference interrupts personal relationships, but how much damage it does depends on which smartphone tribe you belong to

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By CLAIRE KEETON
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Are you guilty of neglecting your child in favour of your smartphone?
Are you guilty of neglecting your child in favour of your smartphone?
Image: 123RF/stevanovicigor

Technoference, a term coined by US psychologist Brandon McDaniel, means "everyday interruptions in face-to-face interactions because of technology devices". It causes children "to show more frustration, hyperactivity, whining, sulking or tantrums", says McDaniel.

Technoference exacerbates bad behaviour and perpetuates a vicious cycle, in which parents retreat to their smartphones to escape their unruly kids, according to a report co-authored by McDaniel.

"When parents are on their devices they have fewer conversations with their children and are more hostile when their offspring try to get their attention," McDaniel says.

The impact of smartphones on family life is not confined to the adults. Increasingly, children feel neglected because parents give their attention to devices instead of to them.

Even when his mother was home, she was often on her phone, absent

"Children are complaining about neglect and the reason is phones," says Andreas Banetsi Mphunga, a counsellor who works in Khayelitsha and at the University of Cape Town's mental health services.

"One flight attendant came to me about her son's disobedience and attitude. He started sneaking off and smoking and wanted expensive clothes he couldn't afford. The child was really seeking attention.

"Even when his mother was home, she was often on her phone, absent. The only way the child connected with her was by sending a message on the phone: 'Are you around? Can I have airtime?'"


A new South African study divides smartphone users into three "tribes" - border expanders, border adapters and border enforcers.

These names were given to his subjects by Ted White, a senior lecturer in human-computer interaction at the Unisa School of Computing, who conducted phone-user research for his psychology PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Many of the 250 senior managers in their 30s who participated in the study were identified by White as the always-on "border expander".

Border expanders are inseparable from their phones and this invariably triggers work-family conflict, he found.

18.48 million

The estimated number of smartphone users in South Africa in 2017

This group, mostly male senior managers, thought they were in control of how work impacted on their home life, but their partners thought the opposite.

"Generally, the partners I spoke to said this was not true at all," says White. He interviewed them separately to avoid arguments.

"If you asked people what type of user they were, what they said was often different to how they operated."

The rest fell into his two other categories: chameleon-like border adapters, and border enforcers, who were rigid about switching off at home.

"The border adapters were a fluid group, treating each situation as unique in deciding whether to allow the intrusion or not. They would look at who was phoning and the context," says White. "Were they next to a partner or was a child trying to grab the phone? Was it their boss or an emergency, or could it wait?"

The third group, the border enforcers, were very strict about the boundary between work and home, often because overwhelming demands in the past had taught them a hard lesson.

For example, one environmental consultant to the mines would get calls in the middle of the night to go out and eventually left that job because of the nonstop demands made on him.

People even switch jobs, like he did, to take back control of their lives.

White says: "Work used to end when the sun went down, but with global digitalisation, the workforce is constantly engaged.

"Executives are conditioning the employees around them that way."


Psychologist Lindiwe Mkhondo, who does executive life coaching, says many of her clients struggle with how smartphones disrupt their work-home balance, not only those in management.

"Smartphones create a state of being constantly on alert and an inability to switch off. This is definitely a trend," she says.

"If you can't switch off, you carry the office home with you and this intrudes into home space in a huge way, which affects relationships, parenting and relaxation."

Users who prioritise their phones do not regulate the flow of work despite complaints from family, the latest study showed.


The number of people who will be using smartphones in South Africa by 2022, according to projections by the Statistics Portal

Take this example of a pilot and his wife who went out to a wedding anniversary dinner at a gourmet restaurant.

White says: "He pretty much ignored her the whole night because he was on his phone. When she asked her husband why he took the calls, he told her because they were important for business and people wouldn't be contacting him for no reason."

Professor Kevin Thomas of UCT, who specialises in neuropsychology, says parents teach kids what boundaries mean.

"Kids are alert to blurred boundaries and parents need to set firm boundaries."

The reasons people are constantly on their phones vary, but self-esteem is an element in this equation.

White was surprised to find that the people who were always responsive to work after hours reported increased self-esteem.

"When the results came out I thought I had done this wrong, let me do it again. It was the reverse of what I had expected from users with deficient self-regulation," says White.

Now he attributes this finding to "social learning processes" - in other words, people are so conditioned to behave a certain way (by their peers, managers and parents) that fulfilling this expectation improves their self-esteem.

Being available 24/7 is seen as a measure of success in their world, particularly in client-facing jobs.


Personality, ambition, job demands and security and the meaning people attach to being online drive smartphone patterns, suggests Judy Klipin, an executive life coach in Johannesburg.

She says people tolerate intrusions from their phones if messages and e-mails mean "being noticed, feeling needed, indispensable and appreciated, the ability to be promoted and a connection to the world".

She is convinced that smartphone use, influenced by personality, contributes to the rise of burnout, which is a problem for more than half of her clients.

"Some people are overly compliant and feel responsible for everyone around them. Other people are able to be discerning and draw boundaries."

Klipin says: "I used to work a lot with government, and people would say they must have their phones on, what if anyone needs them? My response is this: 'What if you were on a plane and the boss needed you? The boss would have to make a plan.'

"If people are available all the time, this creates dependency. Often clients will say they are not taking calls after hours, then they will pick up the phone when the boss calls at 9pm. There is a lot of resentment about this."

Thomas says people benefit from firm boundaries. His advice is: "Don't read e-mails beyond a certain time at night or take work calls on weekends."

Some countries, like France and Germany, have laws that prohibit government officials from accessing e-mails after hours or that make it illegal for employers to expect this from staff.

New York City is debating a bill, proposed in March, that will make it illegal to require staff to check "work-related electronic communication" outside office hours, and certain employers, like Volkswagen, switch off e-mail at night.


But the flexibility of working after hours and at home benefits many people, notes Anna Cox, professor of human-computer interaction at University College London.

"Existing research shows that people have different styles and preferences for how permeable those boundaries between work and life are. Some people have rigid, firm boundaries. Other people are happy to be flipping between them very regularly," says Cox in a recent podcast.

"[We need] to reflect on how we are using technologies: how exhausted or how happy we feel, how we want to live our lives. Then we can really start taking control of our devices."

[We need] to reflect on how we are using technologies ... Then we can really start taking control of our devices
Professor Anna Cox

Everyone needs time to look up from screens and be 100% present, the experts agree, and simply having a phone nearby is distracting. "When the screen lights up, people lose focus," says Mphunga.

He likes the idea of what he calls a "tilili", a "dumbphone" that can't receive e-mail or engage with apps - so no social media - for use at home.

Establishing habits or rituals to mark the transition from the office to family life and to switch off are helpful, says Mkhondo.

In his doctoral thesis, White recommends that "individuals negotiate their smartphone usage with their partner, children and workplace" to diminish work-family conflict.

People should reflect on their internal motivation with a professional counsellor, coach or a psychologist if they struggle to regulate use, he says.

White's research topic was triggered by his workaholic father who was always on the phone.

"I wanted to research whether it was possible for people to regulate their smartphone usage and to look at what the effects were when this was not regulated. Joining these two issues together has not been done before," he says.

Interventions that could help achieve work-family balance include a digital detox, White suggests. "People must enforce the boundaries they want."

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