Step Away from the Cell Phone

It happened again three times in clinic today.  In the middle of a patient visit, a parent picked up their cell phone.  To answer a call, to text a friend, to read their email.  The trend of being always connected and available has reached the exam room.  When this first started happening I was sort of incredulous.  I mean, I’m there, talking to you about your child’s health, and you’re taking a call? 

Then something interesting happened. I got a smart phone, and I started to get more connected myself.  I downloaded a few apps.  And, it was great.  I could read my email or the newspaper anytime.  I could use the phone during a clinic visit to check a drug dose or potential side effect.  Eventually, and here’s the confession part, I found myself start to be sort of drawn to the phone.  I pull it out while waiting in line at the post office.  I take it out of my pocket at work to use the calculator and suddenly find that my email is open and I am reading it.  This seems to happen as if all on its own. I have to close it, remember what I was doing, and move on.  I even sometimes have to consciously stop myself from grabbing the phone while driving.

So, I’m starting to think there is more to this phenomenon of cell phone use during clinic visits than simple thoughtlessness.  Well, maybe it is partly that.  Yet, maybe it is just part of this distracted, over-connected life we’re now all living.  Maybe these parents are feeling that same magnetic property of the phone.  They open it up almost subconsciously, despite knowing it is rude.  This got me to thinking.  How is all this distracted living affecting kids?  The American Academy of Pediatrics recently put out an updated policy statement on media use in children younger than two years.  But, what I’m thinking about is how parents’ media use impacts their children and our society overall.

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other describes how technology impacts relationships quite a lot, including that of parent and child.  She describes a woman Skyping with her grandmother.  All the while she is talking, she is also writing emails, and admits that she ends the conversation feeling “guilty and confused”.  This is not surprising given recent evidence that humans are actually very poor multi-taskers.  What we are actually doing is “serial tasking”, a process that is inefficient and ineffective.  We may think we are getting more done, but we are likely doing each task less well.  This certainly has implications for how well we take care of children.

Turkle suggests that, for some, technology is even more than a simple distraction.  During the course of her research, she states, “I was meeting people, many people, who found online life more satisfying than what some derisively called “RL”, that is, real life.  Digital connections [. . .] may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”  How might this impact the child/parent relationship?  I have had a few parents of very young infants lately describe them as “cry babies” or “demanding”, despite a history that would suggest that the infant is normal for their age and that they are crying when they have biological needs that need meeting.  Babies are sometimes described as being “good” when they are content to be propped in front of a television for long periods.  Could it partly be that technology is somehow changing our expectation of what is normal, and that we now expect children not to “need” us as much?

Yet, it is not all bad news when it comes to the impact of digital technology and the on-line world on our relationships and our children.  Clay Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, describes again and again how the internet, in the age of twitter and facebook, can mobilize a group for an important cause with an ease and speed never before imaginable.  Technology brings us closer together with family members who are geographically distant (as long as we’re not simultaneously emailing someone else).  And, it provides unbelievable access to information.  As a pediatrician, I can keep myself up to date with the latest journal articles and see what is important to fellow pediatricians and parents quite easily.  Parents can find answers to questions about how to care for their children or support from other families in real-time.

But, I can tell you this.  When a parent uses their cell phone during a visit, it not only distracts them, it distracts me.  Instead of thinking about whether the growth curves look okay, I might be thinking about whether or not or how to ask them not to use the phone.  I might be partially calculating doses for medications and partially distracted by their conversation.  And, I don’t think most parents want their pediatrician distracted in this way while taking care of their child.  I certainly don’t.  Just as, I’m sure, my son would prefer I give him my full attention at the playground, instead of reading tweets.

So, I’m going to make a pledge here in writing.  I won’t use my phone while checking out at the grocery store.  I’ll leave it inside when I take my son out to play.  I will enjoy and learn from all of the wonderful connections and information the internet has to offer.  But, I’ll do it at the right times.  When it is time to take care of my child, or yours, I’ll step away from the cell phone.

In what ways (positive and/or negative) is digital technology and the on-line world impacting your real world relationship with your children?