Put down your phone and look at me, Part I

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published July 22, 2016

In a faraway land, a long, long time ago there lived a three year old boy who made the mistake of stubbornly choosing to watch television when his Mom wanted to take him to the park. Given a warning that if he chose not to turn it off after the show ended, he would “lose” TV, thus began a new chapter in parenting.

The little boy saw the TV get put away in the closet for months, and once his addictive symptoms subsided, and the tantrums diminished, he became the most creative little boy around. Between his Lego, Playmobile, erector sets or crayons and paper, he also seemed to be much happier and his parents were happier as all the fights about television ended. Months later, but with new rules, this creative little boy got rewarded with a few hours each week of television time and everyone remained happy. In addition, the adults never missed the TV or the internet, or a smartphone or anything else, because after all, the 80’s was a different time and place. While complaining of never having enough hours in the day, the family always ate dinner together, played, read nightly bed time stories, and had lots of wonderful uninterrupted parent-child time.

Now fast forward thirty years to the present. Times have changed dramatically and not for the best. In the same week I evaluated two children under the age of three with similar technology related problems. One had serious temper tantrums when her iPad needed charging (and the restaurant table was not near a source of power). The other child “lost it” when his iPad was taken away before bed. Most nights he needed it to fall asleep and it frequently remained in his bed until morning.

While the nature of the problems today and thirty years ago may be similar, their scope is far more serious today, in part because technology has evolved to be portable and a problem once confined to the living room now pervades every aspect of our lives. Technology, be it a smartphone or a tablet, follows us into the kitchen, the bedroom, the bathroom, the restaurant, the park, a wedding, the cemetery and just about any place imaginable that a three year old, or his parent, or grandparents could visit. While technology has added greatly to our lives, we have also allowed it to replace face-to-face communication and our children and society as a whole are suffering as a result. Children of all ages and their families need more than ever to sit together and just talk.

Reading the newspaper while sitting in a waiting room this week, I was aware that everyone else was on their phone. There was a time not long ago when people talked to each other, wrote down their grocery list or simply relaxed. We were comfortable being alone with ourselves, and knew that it was okay to be bored as boredom could lead to creativity, not anxiety. We didn’t need to be passively entertained and have every hour filled. We took the time to notice and interact with our environment. We went outside more, were thinner, and healthier. We didn’t need to catch up on our emails or Facebook or see the news tweeted every 30 seconds. We were less stressed as a society and far happier.

I know I am writing a lot about the problem with technology, but society is built on relationships, and relationships on communication, and technology is interfering with this rather than helping. Thanks to all who responded to the questions posed in my recent column, (Technology Troubles, June 10). Your responses were very interesting and I am happy to report that readers agreed that in spite of their many advantages, smartphones have many serious problems. One person expressed hope that I start a new anti-smartphone movement. A few people don’t own a smartphone and some even turn them off when they are with their partners, out at a restaurant, at work, and occasionally for an entire day, making a real decision as to when they chose to receive or access information. Those who did this seemed oddly in control, and seemed the happiest. Those too who turned off their phones for Shabbat spoke of having more time to sit and really be “present” with their loved ones and stated they appreciated just how much of a gift those 25 hours really were.

Sadly, we’ve all been privy to someone’s “too loud conversation” and have seen too many families “together”, with each family member doing their own thing on their phone. We don’t know what long term impact technology will have on interpersonal communication. While everyone seems plugged-in these days and brags about how many Facebook friends they have, it seems that fewer people are talking to each other, engaged in face-to-face conversation. It feels like the Tower of Babel – with everyone talking but not speaking the same language.

Face-to-face contact where a child learns to interpret social cues and gestures and respond to the emotional content of a conversation that goes far beyond words, is virtually (no pun intended) nonexistent. Emoticons, designed to bring emotion to the terse and often abbreviated written word of text messages, are frequently misinterpreted, especially by children who may be quite concrete in their thinking. (Now emojis are even replacing the words). The parental unit, the very foundation of the family, has deteriorated, as couples experience less closeness and greater distance, with the cell phone acting as the “third person” in their love triangle. In other words, while the “affair” may be with a smartphone and not another individual, the resultant anxiety, trust and potential addiction issues may feel the same, leaving the partner feeling left out and lonely.

Several readers addressed concern over the changing face of the mother-infant dyad. One thing that really stood out was the familiar scene of a mom walking her baby, talking on the phone instead of conversing with her baby.

Additionally, it’s not uncommon for babies and phones to be propped up side by side when feeding, so in true multitasking fashion, Mom can read and feed simultaneously. This results in baby loosing extremely valuable eye contact, physical touch, and loving baby-directed communication and empathy, all essential to the formation of future social relatedness.

Having spent years focusing professionally on early childhood, I am extremely concerned about the fragmentation of the caregiver-infant and parent- child relationships. If the resultant attachment between baby and parent is precarious, the long term impact on other relationships such as that with siblings, friends and ultimately a marriage partner, may be devastating. As a society, we must be proactive and see the scope and seriousness of the smartphone issue today as having a potential detrimental effect on a couple, the family, school, the army, and greater society.

We are important role models, and setting limits and guiding our precious children in forming appropriate interpersonal relationships with their family, friends, colleagues and ultimately their partners is crucial but often lacking. This will be the focus of the next column.

A version of this article suitable for printing is available here.