In 2014, researchers conducted an observational study in unnamed fast food restaurants, which is a nice way of saying they went to McDonald’s and took notes on the behavior of strangers. Of the 55 parents they observed with their children, 40 used smartphones to varying degrees at the expense of not interacting with their child. New research is making clear the real ramifications of this behavior: Distracted parents make for jerky kids. But anyone who points to a phone as the problem is misunderstanding both technology and intention. Phones aren’t bad, but they can have negative effects when they interfere with rather than augment family relationships. And they do that a lot.
In a sense, a modern adult’s relationship with his or her phone is fundamental to that person’s relationship with all of his or her loved ones. Put differently, how an individual’s relationship with their phone is a family relationship even though it’s not a relationship with family.
“A smartphone is merely a tool that can be used to positive or negative ends,” says Daniel Hunt, a marriage and family therapist at Capstone Treatment Center. “The question isn’t, ‘How often should I text my members?’ The bigger, better question is: What is your relationship with your smartphone?”
That relationship is at the core of a lot of family interactions because phones so often become a means for remote communication (an observation that would have been deemed tautological before the advent of Candy Crush). Increased phone use in the service of being in touch with loved ones might seem beneficial, but individual dependence on the phones as social multi-tools can also be problematic. It’s not as simple as prioritizing family while looking down or even–though there’s some reason to believe that this is the effective not-so-middle ground–putting phones away.
For families unaffected by distance, these devices add a layer of safety and convenience to daily life — children can text confirmation of their well being and receive guidance. Parents can keep each other and their kids in the loop on schedules and personal interactions. But smartphones cannot solve one problem: smartphones. The issue there is that technologies that transform human interaction effectively transform the people doing the interacting. It is conceivable for a child to be raised by a parent who effectively has two personalities, one with a phone and one without.
“I changes who we are,” says Sherry Turkle, director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self.
That’s the scholarship in a nutshell. But what to make of that social metadata? Hunt suggests trying to understand the personality effects of phone exposure on individuals.
“I deal consistently with the millennial generation and younger, a population that has had internet access their entire lives,” he says. “What I’m seeing is an epidemic in which they’re not confident in themselves, they’re riddled with anxiety, and don’t know how to interact with their peers.”
That’s one effect. Another might be an older person being made perpetually irritable by “pings” from coworkers. Another might be a politically minded parent struggling to concentrate on the moment thanks to push notifications from the Washington Post. Humans are wired for connections and relationships, so it’s only natural that we seek them through technology. But a problem emerges as we hypnotize ourselves into valuing technology over people. When family moments are mediated by technology, technology doesn’t suffer–families do. A look shared by a parent and a newborn child will release oxytocin and build attachment, but that’s not true over FaceTime.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that technology’s bad,” says Hunt. “It just means you have to know what you’re dealing with. and many people confuse mass-produced technological interactions with genuine intimacy.”
Hunt offers a simple best practice for families concerned with technology becoming an unhealthy burden: Use the phone to coordinate in-person experiences, and once everyone’s together, keep the phones out of sight.
Of course, that assumes that such a thing is possible. In reality, parents–and sometimes even children–need to keep their phones on their person for practical reasons. And, yes, there’s even practical value in allowing teenagers to chat constantly in the service of letting them lean into their increasing independence. So, what then? How can a family mitigate the effects of a technology each member is likely going to be forced to embrace?
Honesty helps. If everyone in a family–and “everyone” is always a euphemism for adults modeling good behavior–understands the potential effects of their phone and is honest about the emotional radiation given off by the device in their pocket, they can sidestep (to a degree) long-term fallout. If “Phone Dad” is understood as separate from normal dad, he can be more easily called out for bad behavior or anxiety or frustration. Once the effects of phones are understood within a family they can be controlled and the gadget can go back to being what it’s supposed to be, a piece of communication technology.