I often hear two related ideas about adults' screen usage around children. Sometimes the parent asking the question guiltily confesses to using screens around their children more than they would like, and to using screens as a momentary escape from the demands of parenting.
Or the parent asking the question feels that they have found a sense of balance in their own screen usage, but worries about their partner who frequently ignores their child because they're so focused on a screen.
In this episode we interview a luminary in the field of research related to children and screen usage: Dr. Jenny Radesky, who is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Her research interests include the use of mobile technology by parents and young children, and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent-child interaction, and she was the lead author of the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.
We'll learn whether you should be worried about Technoference, and some judgement-free steps you can take to navigate your (or your partner's) screen usage around your child.
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Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives, but it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about, subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. I've had our topic today on my mind for a while and over the last few months I think it's become more relevant than it ever has been before. And the topic we're going to talk about today is technoference and that's the idea that technology, and specifically mobile phones, interferes with relationships that we have with other people. It can interfere with relationships of all kinds and your might first rest on your partner, and how you perceive your partner's phone use interfering with your relationship, and we'll certainly touch on that. But our primary focus for today will be on how our phones interfere with our relationships with our children. We'll learn how concerned we should really be about this and what we should try and do to balance our own needs for connectedness with others and our children's need for connectedness with us.
And so here to discuss this today with us is Dr. Jenny Radesky. Dr. Radesky is a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Radesky obtained her MD from Harvard Medical School. Conducted her pediatrics residency at the University of Washington, and then a fellowship in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Boston University. She's board certified in pediatrics and developmental behavioral pediatrics. Her research interests include the use of mobile technology by parents and young children, and how this relates to child self-regulation and parent child interaction. She was the lead author of the 2016 American Academy of pediatrics policy statement on digital media use in early childhood.
Welcome, Dr. Radesky.
Dr. Radesky 08:16
Hi, thanks so much for having me.
Okay, so let's start kind of where we often do when we're coming to a topic like this, which is with some definitions and terminology. And I actually learned a new word while I was researching this episode, which is fubbing. So, I'm wondering, can you help us understand what is technoference? What is fubbing? Is it the same thing? Or is it different?
Dr. Radesky 08:38
It's pretty similar. I mean, the term fubbing was in the research literature first, as I was starting to try to research how parents phone use influences family dynamics. It was like 2010-2011, and I was in my fellowship, and I was scouring the literature for any prior research on parents and kids and technology. And there wasn't much there was really just this fubbing phenomenon, which was how a mobile phone inserts itself into an interpersonal space and the, you know, the person who is doing the fubbing kind of gets a little bit transported to, you know, another virtual space where they're interacting with someone else, or with other content. And then the fubbee gets, you know, often the research is showing they're frustrated. And this term started even when mobile phones were just little dumb phones, you know, with texting capabilities. And the mobile communications research was really just interested in, now we could take these devices everywhere, you know, they were focused on using technology on mass transit, or at mealtimes, or during other times that normally had a bit of a boundary around it when it came to technologies.
Dr. Radesky 09:53
So technoference was a term developed by my co-author and collaborator Brandon McDaniel. He's a psychologist Who's that Parkview Research Center in Indiana. So, he gets the credit for that term. But he coined that term in trying to capture a research measure that's not just about how much is the parent using technology or how much is the child using technology, but what's happening with the relationship? And so, it became a questionnaire asking parents about on a typical day, you know, how many devices are you using when you're interacting with your child?
Yeah. And so, what I found was myself, it was kind of thinking about technoference in terms of the relationship. And then I just wanted to find fubbing, it's this portmanteau of phone and snubbing stuck together. But I found the idea of the fubber and the fubbee to be useful to distinguish who's on which end of that relationship as well.
Dr. Radesky 10:49
Yeah, and I think there's been some interesting ethnographic research where people have interviewed families to talk about how it feels when your spouse or partner is doing the fubbing, especially when it's just a high stress time in your household, or, you know, someone has to change a diaper, and all of a sudden your partner is absorbed in their phone. And so that, you know, negative connotation that comes with the term snubbing has even more layers, when it comes to parents who are taking care of a young child, which is just such, you know, has many different sources of stress in it to begin. Many different issues around co-parenting and role overload. And I'm interested in early childhood, mostly because it's such a time of building resilience. When kids are facing adversity, or stressful times, like a pandemic, secure relationships are a huge buffer to that stress, or are a way that kids make meaning of stressful times build emotion regulation, you know, so that's why I kind of put my interest in technology that started when I was in Seattle, you know, I was in Seattle in like 2007-2011, which is like, just the time that the iPhone and all these devices were coming out. And I was like, this is fascinating, you know, dynamics are changing so much in our hospital in our offices.
Dr. Radesky 12:07
So, I took that with my interest in early childhood relationships. And that's where my first study in the fast-food restaurants came from because I was like, I just want to observe what's happening here. I don't want to come in with preconceived hypotheses or notions about this is bad, this is good. I want to observe, take field notes, like I'm an anthropologist, and just see the patterns of what's happening. And that study wound up getting so much press attention, because there was already this societal kind of concern. Like, every time there's new technologies introduced, the society gets a bit anxious, they feel uncomfortable, they feel disrupted. This has happened extremely rapidly, you know, the way that we've adopted these new technologies is so much faster than the way radio or telephones were adopted. So I was a fellow at the time and getting interviewed, you know, by like The Today Show or Al Jazeera America, and I was like, wow, people are really concerned about this, I need to be aware of the fact that this is a hot topic that's going to polarize that's going to kind of have some implicit judgement in it, too. And that's where my research, you know, on this topic started.
Okay. So I wonder if we can go into that a little bit, then because I think a lot of the research that had been conducted to that point on fubbing, as it was known until then, was sort of done by asking people, how much do you use your phone? And then the fubbee, how much does it annoy you when somebody uses your phone, when they use their phone in front of you? And your methodology, it was the first time I'd seen it in the literature in this, you know, to be used in this way. And it's been replicated a whole bunch of times in different environments since then. So, can you tell us what did you do? And then what did you see when you're sitting in these restaurants?
Dr. Radesky 13:50
Yeah. And it took me a while to land on this study design, actually. So, we thought about creating a survey. And that's what a lot of the fubbing research had been on but I was really worried that a survey would have too much what we call social desirability bias in research, and I also knew that the way that we interact with phones is more intermittent or immersive. I knew there was that cultural overlay of judgement of parents about it. So, I didn't want to, you know, create a survey that could possibly be biased, I wanted objective data. So, objective meaning you can kind of observe it and count it and see what's happening without the parent being self-conscious that they're being judged.
Dr. Radesky 14:35
So, we decided on public observations, this has been done to look at how parents discipline their kids in public. It's been done to look at how, you know, people interact with public spaces. And it's considered ethical because we didn't collect any identifiable data. We didn't write down any child names, but the participants didn't know we were watching. It's you know, it's called nonparticipant observation because you go and you blend in with the surroundings. So myself and two research assistants just went to all these fast-food restaurants in Boston, in the spring and summer of 2013. I was like pregnant as can be with my second son. And we were taking field notes. So, we would bring a laptop and some books and act like we were just, you know, drinking an iced coffee and taking field notes.
Dr. Radesky 15:24
We tried to go to sampled around different neighborhoods in Boston that had higher income, lower income, you know, Panera to Chipotle a to McDonald's. And we just took these long winded, continuous notes of like, 'Mom picks up phone, it's held about 10 inches from her face, you know, child is eating French fry.' So boring. But when we read these field notes over and over, we were just seeing patterns and themes of behavior that emerged. The biggest theme was absorption, we called it, which is a term that's been used before, but it was really this idea that the parents gaze and attention and it looked like a lot of their cognitive energy was on the phone, not on the child. We were looking a lot, not just for the negative, we were looking for times when parents and kids were sharing media and laughing over it, we saw that like four times, out of 55 families. We saw, you know, about a third of families who used phones were had this absorption where there was very little conversation. Kids would sometimes act up to get their attention. You know, we saw one child who tried to pull his mom's face up from her iPad, and she yelled at him and pushed him away, or another mom that kind of, you know, nudged her or kicked her kids under the table when they were, you know, acting up and trying to get her attention.
Dr. Radesky 16:42
And none of this, we really didn't want to describe it in a way that made the parents sound like they're being bad parents, it was really like, this is a new phenomenon. Parents have never had their attentions, you know, spread in so many different...