kids

There's nothing wrong with checking Facebook while feeding, is there?

If you are breastfeeding, where do you look when you feed your baby?

If you have a toddler, when you interact do you look at them as you talk to them? No one can do this 100 per cent of the time, but where do you sit on the scale: 80 per cent? 60 per cent? 25 per cent?

When it comes to technology and kids, by now most of us have read the studies linking high screen use to a sedentary lifestyle and therefore childhood obesity. We’ve read stories that say letting young children and babies use touchscreens and smartphones is tantamount to “child abuse”. Then there are stories about kids as young as three becoming addicted to touchscreens – just take them away from them and it’s like trying to take the pokies away from a gambling addict.

On the other hand there’s research that says all of the above is dramatic bollocks, that there is no direct link between touchscreens and cognitive deficits or issues in children. People need to calm down.

No wonder it’s hard to know what to think, particularly when raising kids is so demanding and tiring and there is this glowing screen, this ray of light just over there that can give back parents a much needed sliver of uninterrupted time their day.

Is losing eye contact with your baby really that important? Image iStock

Now enter into the debate a different kind of touchscreen use by-product altogether. One that has nothing at all to do with a child's use, but everything to do with the parent's use and how that impacts on their baby or child.

It's not about what the parent is doing on their phone, it's about disconnection when they are so connected. It's about the parent's gaze, the most basic of human connections, moving from the child to the screen.

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Dr Mary Aitken, a cyberpsychologist (I had never heard of it either, but it's a psychologist who studies how humans interact with technology and how their behaviour changes because of it), told The Telegraph in London she was on a train recently and observed intently a mother and baby who were sitting opposite her. The mother started breastfeeding and as she did she brought out her phone.

"The mother looked exclusively at her phone while the baby fed," Dr Aitken wrote in The Telegraph. "The baby was gazing foggily upward, as babies do, and looking adoringly at the mother’s jaw, as the mother continued to gaze adoringly at her device. For half an hour, as the feeding went on, the mother did not make eye contact with the infant or once pull her attention from the screen of her phone."

Dr Aitken wondered how will this small shift play out over time and how many millions of parents were no longer looking at their children as they fed or talked to them.

This mum of three made an app to help her chill out. Did it work? (Post continues after audio.)

So dire and damaging to a child this shift in parent/child behaviour, she also reasoned that "someday there might be writing on the screen of all mobile phones that says: 'Warning: Not Looking at Your Baby Could Cause Significant Developmental Delays'."

Dr Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician specialising in child development, noticed when she worked in a tech savvy Seattle practice how many parents ignored their kids in favour of a mobile device. NPR a Washington based news service reports she spent a summer observing 55 groups of parents and young children at fast food restaurants where many pulled out a device as soon as they sat down. Dr Radesky is careful to point out this was not a scientific study, but observation. She observed that overall parents were more absorbed in the device than kids.

Dr Radesky says face-face interactions are the main way children learn.

"They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them," Dr Radesky says in NPR. "They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones."

She also says because our smartphones have so much information on them, from work emails to bad news stories, they can really affect the way an adult feels. That means happy mummy or daddy at the park checks their phone and suddenly becomes unhappy, angry mummy or daddy.

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"The parents describe that feeling as pretty hard," Dr Radesky says. "Especially when the child is reacting to the parent’s withdrawal."

Psychologist and assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Adam Alter, is a New York Times bestselling author has just written Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking and Watching.

Alter, an Australian, won't even get his smartphone out in front of his baby. He told The Times in March: “Children will pay a lot of attention to your gaze,” says Alter. “And if your gaze is directed away from them and at a phone, they notice. There is evidence that a lot of kids come to mirror the way that their parents use phones.”

A toddler plays on an iPhone and is a natural. Image iStock

Medical bodies around the world have been seriously assessing appropriate screen time for children and babies. In Australia The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner recommends no screen time at all for children under two, and that two to five year olds have less than an hour a day. Older children screen time recommendations are less than two hours a day.

In November last year the American Academy of Pediatrics reduced their digital media recommendations for babies and children. Children under 18 months no screen time at all and maximum screen time for children under five and a half the same as in Australia: one hour.

These recommendations are about a child's interaction with digital media because of concerns about the direct developmental impact that excessive screen time may have. (Interestingly as Adler points out in The Times, Steve Jobs did not let his children use the iPad and in a Silicon Valley school in the US where 75 per cent of kids have parents who are heavyweights in the tech industry - technology is banned at school).

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So children have screen time guidelines, what about adults?

There are no official medical recommendations for adults. It seems adults should have enough self control to know when they have gone too far (if a truism, that would solve a lot of the world's problems).

As Dr Aitken asks, what will happen to our children and our children's children if you don't look at a baby while you feed them today? If you don't play with their toes or smile at them, or run a finger along their soft cheek whenever the mood strikes?

Listen: The This Glorious Mess podcast covers all kinds of parenting dilemmas. (Post continues after audio.)

How does responding to a toddler mostly distracted, limiting answers to one word instead of an explanatory sentence, not looking at them more often than not when they are seeking praise or acknowledgement for a lego tower or well fed teddy, impact?

Of course you can never be ON 100 per cent of the time, but if you are honest with yourself, how much time are you relying on your smartphone to be ON instead? How many "well-earned breaks" or "must do now work checks" or "just this one thing" are parents doing while their baby or child is waiting for them to simply make eye contact?

Children are smart and intuitive, maybe more so than smartphones. From babies, they can tell when you are happy or sad. They definitely know when you are looking at them and when you are distracted.

I hear a lot of parents talking about how they limit screen time for their children. They set timers, they have rules, their toddler's are only allowed to access certain child friendly "educational" apps. Apart from the "I won't take my phone into my bedroom at night" I haven't heard much about those limits going the other way.

And should they anyway? The scientific studies aren't in yet. It's just a bunch of psychologists asking how important is the gaze that connects a parent and a child? Some call it one of the foundations of bonding: touch, talking, looking.

Parenting is hard. Everyone needs breaks and no-one is a super human. But the question has to be asked; is it damaging for a little baby to be fed and have her mother regularly look at her phone instead of her child?

Is it?