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You, Your Mobile Device and Your Child — Dr. Jenny Radesky

Contributor: Jacob Adler

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Dr. Jenny Radesky of Boston University Medical Center received her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins and her medical degree from Harvard and then trained in Seattle.   Her research interests include use of mobile media by parents, young children’s self-regulation, parent mental health, and parent-child interaction.  She is also exploring how digital resources can support parent engagement with their child’s development and social and emotional health.  She is a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media as well as the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

The following are edited excerpts of her conversation with Stew Friedman about digital technology and its impact on boundaries between work and the rest of life.

Stewart Friedman: You’re a pediatrician, a doctor that works with kids. How did you get interested in parent’s use of mobile devices in front of their children? And what have you learned?

Jenny Radesky: jenny radeskyI got into this when I was working as a primary care doctor in Seattle. It was right after the iPad had been released and iPhones were becoming much more of a factor in our culture.   I was fascinated by how it much it changed the dynamic in the office setting. I wasn’t seeing this as good or bad. I observed that this was a new cultural trend that we’re going to have to study and figure out.  It’s good in some ways because it’s connecting parents to their spouse or information or what I was telling them about, but it also put up a new barrier.  I found that there was less eye contact, attention,  and social engagement.

SF: This is with the children?

JR: The child or with me.  So I started developmental behavioral pediatrics training.

SF: Developmental behavioral pediatrics training, what is that?

JR: A pediatrician who specializes in children who have developmental differences. I see a lot of kids with autism, ADHD, developmental delays, learning disabilities, fussy babies, anything that is a little deviation or concern for parents about their child’s development. I worked and trained in a pretty low-end part of Boston, so I’ve been really interested in what forces of resilience we can nurture in kids growing up in poverty. And the parent/child relationship is the number one source of resilience for so many kids.  And for all kids it is a major source of how kids develop their language, their cognitive skills, their social skills, the way that they can handle strong emotions.  So putting this all together as I’m training, as I’m learning more about how to watch parents and kids interacting in exam rooms, I’m seeing more and more technology, this kind of portable device entering into the dynamic much more than it ever had before.   That’s why I tried to start this line of research, to begin the questions:  How is this affecting the dynamic?  What ways can we use technology that will be disruptive?  And what ways can we use it that might bring kids and parents together?  I’ve found it’s so highly-relevant for my own family dynamic.

SF: You mean your own personal family?

JR: Yes. I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old. My six-year-old has special needs. It’s really interesting to watch the way they differ, interact with technology, and the way they demand my presence when I get home. I work full-time. My husband works from home. We really have examined this closely since I’ve started studying it because I experience it all the time.

SF: What have you learned? What are some of the big ideas that have come from your study and your practice?

JR:  The biggest thing I find interesting about this is that mobile devices and the sort of rapidly-evolving technology that we’re constantly using throughout the day can contain so much of our lives. It contains our work emails, it contains information, data, news. It contains good news and bad news.  I find when I’ve been interviewing a lot of parents about their own technology use, the amount of emotional and cognitive reaction that they have to what they’re doing on their devices is really remarkable. It’s so different than just watching TV or reading a book.
SF: Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean?

JR: Parents describe it as they’re so invested in their work lives. They don’t really want to be irrelevant in their careers, so they might be in the middle of playing with their child or out at the playground and get an email that really upsets them or really makes them feel oh, I’ve got to answer this right away, I’ve really got to act on this. Some people describe it as intrusive.  Some people describe it as they’re happy that they can have the opportunity to be at the playground and still be working.   But it’s a new type of cognitive balance that they need to achieve.

SF: Are they really at the playground?

JR: They can be. On and off and on and off. There’s a lot of toggling that parents describe between “work brain” and “child brain.” That’s not easy because your work brain is very task-oriented and analytic and your child brain is often trying to be more emotional and flexible. The parents describe that feeling as pretty hard, especially when the child is reacting to the parent’s withdrawal.

SF: Withdrawal into their work stream through their digital device to which they’re reacting very emotionally because they’re missing out on something or they need to respond to some urgent matter that their boss or colleague is asking them for?

JR: Right.   And sometimes it also depends on the child. One of the studies we’ve done was just observing families in fast food restaurants during meals. We know that mealtimes are very important for parent/child interaction, time when kids have a lot of conversation and emotional connection. Fast food meals, maybe not so much. For probably half the kids, not much happens. People didn’t talk.

SF: When mom or dad’s cellphone comes out, you mean?

JR: Yes.  Not many kids used devices during this study. It was a pretty small sample, we only observed 55 families to try and get an idea of how we should start studying this. Some kids just hung out, didn’t make any sort of attempt to get their parent’s attention. They played with what they were doing, and there was very little interaction during the meal. For the other half of children, they really amped it up. They would be just silly or do provocative things to try to get the parent’s attention, which is very stressful when you’re trying to do something on your phone. You’re trying to think, and you keep getting interrupted. So we saw a bunch of parents yell at their kids, or one mom pushed her son’s hands away when he was trying to lift her head up, lift her face up from the tablet she was looking at. We saw more parents looking really stressed and starting to raise their voices and starting to show more negativity towards their kids.

SF: Probably not realizing that the instigation for this sort of escalation of the child’s attention-seeking behavior is caused by the arrival of the smartphone into the family environment.

JR: You bring up a really good point. One of the things I’m really interested in is something called mind-mindedness, which is how parents understand the motivation for their child’s behavior, how parents can kind of read their child’s mind and say: “I know you just said something annoying, but I realize that the real underlying reason was because you were upset about this, so let me help you with the thing you were upset about rather than just punish you for the behavior.One thing that a lot of parents say, and I’ve definitely experienced this myself, is when your mind is busy analyzing or working on something, it’s really hard to switch over to analyzing the child and being mind-minded about them. I’m way more likely to just react to the behavior, to snap at them. I really have to put it down, take a breath, and say,  “what’s going on here?” in order to actually solve the problem and see why they want my attention.

SF:  It’s hard to take the time to have some empathy for and understanding of the motivation for your kids’ behavior when you’re busy trying to solve a work problem.

JR: And the other thing is that reading children’s behavior takes a lot of practice.  Parenting is not as intuitive as people want to believe, especially when there is a child with any developmental differences or self-regulation problem. Sometimes their behavior is just bizarre and, as a parent, you really need those unhurried, undistracted times of getting to know your kid’s rhythm, getting to know their behavior to be able to respond to their behavior and help them navigate whatever sort of difficulties they’re having. There was a really interesting study that came out last summer of teens and pre-teens.  They found that when they randomized teenagers to a week of summer camp without any screens versus a week of summer camp where they had full access to any sort of screens or mobile devices, after they came back from summer camp, the kids without screens were significantly higher on tests of reading other people’s facial expressions.  This is something I care about because all my families where children struggle with social skills, they really work on reading other people’s non-verbal behaviors and facial expressions.

SF: The source of signals about emotional life.

JR: Exactly. I thought it was a fascinating study because it shows you just how much practice, the day-to-day hanging out with other kids, being face-to-face with them, reading their faces, problem-solving together, really builds some sort of emotional intelligence.

SF: Which is so critical for survival and success in life in general. So does this imply that parents should be restricting or circumscribing their kids’ access and their own access to digital devices under certain circumstances?

JR:  The American Academy of Pediatrics (and I am on their Council of Communications and Media) just came out with a new set of tips and guidelines for parents about how to help manage their child’s digital media use when it feels like our kids are swimming in it. How can you talk about screen time when there are screens everywhere? The guidelines try to be very evidence-based but also real-world about the fact that this is harder to navigate now that it’s not just turning the TV on or off, or turning the computer on or off. We still are recommending trying to put time limits on this because we know that teenagers are spending eight-and-a-half hours a day in front of screens. This was an estimate from three or four years ago. It’s probably even more than that today. Using multiple screens at a time, hanging out in clusters, sometimes mostly communicating through screens. I think it’s really changed the way that young people communicate with each other, and not always in a bad way. But in a way that I think Sherry Turkle has really highlighted in her new book. She did a lot of interviews with young adults talking about how this has changed their comfort with reading each other’s nonverbal signals and being able to tolerate the boredom or distress of a difficult moment or conversation. So when Sherry and I have talked about this (her realm is the adolescents and my realm is the parents of young kids) there are those moments of trying to tolerate my young kids’ distress where I would just love to get on my own screen, get them on theirs, and have quiet in the house. And sometimes you need to do that, and I would much rather the parents do that than do something drastic, but I just don’t want it to be the main way that families learn to cope with conflict or frustration.

SF: And now it’s become so easy to do that as a source of relief from the great strain and stress of dealing with difficult moments with your kids. What does this foretell about the future of humanity? Where are we headed?

JR: I think we’re going to be okay. Most of the families that I see have a really strong sense of wanting to be wary of this. They recognize the discomfort in this cultural change, they want some guidance on how to navigate it. I just saw a family this morning that was saying, “My son watches Minecraft videos on YouTube for three hours a day and I can’t get him to do his homework and I don’t know why he wants to do this.” As pediatricians and other providers, we need to get comfortable with how to give guidance and how to help replace some of that time, that we see as pretty passive consumption of media, with either using digital media in a creative way, doing something where he’s constructing things or building things or composing music or doing something else with digital media, or to get him interested in some other hands-on or social activity that will give him that same feeling of calmness or fascination that the video is providing him.

SF: Unless that video is providing him with an outlook that really is a productive one for him.

JR: And it could be. Digital media serves so many good, functional purposes for families. One of the things I really advocate for amongst pediatricians giving advice about this is that you have to understand the function of the use of this. If this is the only way this child knows how to calm down, we need to work on teaching other ways, and we need to give the parents other ways and give them a viable replacement, because nothing works as easily as this, and we really need to empower the parents to use other approaches.

SF: I want to turn back to what you were saying earlier about the parent bringing the device out and it causing an escalating cycle of tension by removing him/her from the family environment psychologically by attending to the black mirror. I don’t know if you saw Susan Dominus’ piece in The New York Times recently; it was called Motherhood, Screened Off. Basically, what she described there is when she was a kid and her mother went to her address book, Susan knew that her mother was looking up an address, when she went to the newspaper it was clear that she was reading the newspaper, checking the weather, being current on the world events and the environment. But now, you go to a screen, and as you said earlier, it could be anything. Your whole stream of information comes through that device and your child doesn’t know what you’re doing. The solution that Susan is trying is to narrate what she’s doing so her child knows why she’s doing what she’s doing, and thereby to help the child understand the purpose of her not being attentive at that moment. What do you think about that approach?

JR: I like it because it is, in one way, teaching the child digital literacy. We often talk about this idea of teaching children digital literacy, learning to use digital technology as a tool, not as an end in and of itself. She’s narrating how she’s using it as a tool. It also gives the child, who may be in many different stages of cognitive or social-emotional understanding, and idea of what his mom doing.  One of the things we’ve thought might be confusing or dis-regulating for the child is this sudden change in facial expression. People have called it the still face. I have this great photo of myself that my mother-in-law took, where my son is bounding around the yard smiling and I’m in the background looking at my cell phone with this totally furrowed brow, not in the moment at all. I love it because it’s probably me checking my work email and things come up with patients or things I’m concerned about and it totally sucks me in.

SF: Your patients are happy about that part, that you’re present for them. But what does that mean for your son?

JR: That’s why I’m really interested in some of the discussions about how do we make work less overflowing? How can we filter out the noise that keeps coming into my inbox or the inefficiencies that make my workday overflow into my time with my kids?  Part of that is my own rules that I’m not good at, which is when I see someone needs help from me, I react to it and I send way too many late-night emails.

SF: What advice do you have for working parents based on your research and your practice to help them manage the boundary between their work and their family lives with respect to their use of screens?

JR: I think the first is not to react with guilt about this. I really want my message to be that I’m not doing this research to tell parents one more thing that they’re doing wrong, because I’m totally in the thick of it myself. I’m really doing it, number one, to make aspects of parenting young children a little bit easier, because it’s hard enough. Number two, to try and understand the way that these new demands that are placed on the family unit are affecting some of the dynamics and how we might slowly shift that, whether it’s through technology interventions or through types of recommendations that we put out through the AAP. One of the things we always say is to create those boundaries in your home and make a rule for it. When I get home, I know I have a solid hour-and-a-half that’s meal, book, then bedtime with my kids, and unless there’s some emergency that I need to attend to, my phone or tablet usually stays in my bag. My husband jokes that I take it out and ignore him for the rest of the night, but we are really explicit about trying to communicate well with each other when we want time with each other, when it’s okay to have a work night. The other thing I’ve been attempting to do is find ways to filter out the inefficient ways that I’m sending multiple emails to solve a minor problem, when there are things that can be resolved with a simple face-to-face discussion.  I might have to wait a day for that. I need to start being comfortable with tolerating that.  That’s a way of me reducing the amount that I have to do after I get home.

SF: Being more mindful about your choices about what you attend to and through what medium.

JR: Finally, I encourage parents to just be reflective about the way they react to technology.  It’s all based on our own emotional reactivity and our own personalities.  For one person, being able to text during meals is actually a really fun way to have social interactions with someone who’s not physically there.  That’s different from, for example, when I get that urge to check emails when I’m bored at the playground, but then I get sucked in.  Maybe I need to have a rule that I can check the weather, I can check my personal email when I’m at the playground, but if I don’t want to get sucked in I should resist the urge to check work email.

Learn about The American Academy’s tips to help parents manage the new digital landscape.


Jacob Adler , jacob adlerW’18,  is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.

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