When Parents Are The Ones Too Distracted By Devices : All Tech Considered Parents often complain that smartphones keep their kids distracted from conversation. What happens when it's the other way around, when kids can't get their smartphone-glued parents' attention?

When Parents Are The Ones Too Distracted By Devices

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

This week, we've been exploring how today's must-have gadgets actually prevent us from connecting with one another face-to-face. For example, teenagers transfixed by their cellphones, texting friends, communicating with their parents in monosyllabic grunts. This image has become a trope of the Internet age.

But as NPR's Steve Henn reports, kids are far from the only ones in families distracted by their devices.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: A couple weeks ago, my 12-year-old daughter staged a bit of an intervention. She and my wife basically threatened to take my phone and break it.

Hi. So recently you got mad at me. Do you want to tell me why?

ELLA HENN: You are always on your phone.

HENN: I am not always. When?

HENN: Well...

HENN: I'm not on my phone right now.

HENN: It's just sometimes at night, you will stand around and you'll just stand there and you'll have your phone out. And you'll just type and you'll just stand there. And it's like, Lila is ready to go to bed, everybody is trying to get people to read to them, and you're just standing there in the middle of the hallway, reading your texts and texting other people.

HENN: Has that gotten worse?

HENN: It hasn't really changed. It got worse when we moved to California.

HENN: But you didn't give me a hard time until recently. Why did you start giving me a hard time about it?

HENN: Because it was annoying me - I don't know. It was - it didn't get worse, really. It just sort of started adding up.

HENN: My daughter, Ella, isn't the only kid that feels that way.

CATHERINE STEINER-ADAIR: My name is Catherine Steiner-Adair. And I am a clinical and consulting psychologist. I recently wrote a book called "The Big Disconnect."

HENN: For her book, Catherine Steiner-Adair interviewed more than a thousand kids from the ages of four to 18. She talked to hundreds of teachers and parents.

STEINER-ADAIR: One of the many things that absolutely knocked my socks off, was the consistency with which children, whether they were four or eight or 18 or 24, talked about feeling exhausted and frustrated and sad, or mad trying to get their parents attention. Competing with computer screens or iPhone screens or any kind of technology much like, in therapy, you hear kids talk about sibling rivalry.

HENN: Catherine Steiner-Adair says one of the challenges we all face is that these devices are wired to grab our attention and keep it. She thinks the most successful apps are popular - even addictive - because they tap into reward mechanism in our brains.

STEINER-ADAIR: Yes, you know, when you are plugged into you screen, the part of your brain that lights up is the to-do list. Everything feels urgent, everything feels a little exciting. We get a little dopamine hit when we accomplish another e-mail - check this, check that. And when a child is waiting by or comes into your room and it's one of those mini-moments - and you don't know, that's the hard thing about parenting - you don't know if this is the ordinary question or are they are coming with something really important. It's really hard as a grown up to disengage and to give them the warmth that you give them, the same tone of voice that you greet them, if they interrupt you when you are scrambling eggs.

HENN: A couple of years ago, my daughter got a laptop for school and then we got her a phone. When we did that we set up rules for when she could use this stuff and when she'd need to put it away. We created a charging station outside of her bedroom, where she had to plug these devices in every night. Basically, except for homework, she has to put it all of this stuff away when she comes home.

Catherine Steiner-Adair says most adults don't set up similar limits in their own lives.

STEINER-ADAIR: We've lost the boundaries that protect work and family life.

HENN: She says whether you're a parent or not, carving out time to turn off your devices, to disconnect from the wired world and engage with the real people around you is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and the people you love.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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