Smartphones can prevent parents from cultivating feelings of connection with their children

Smartphones can distract parents and undermine their connection to their kids, according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“Smartphones have become both a central part of modern social life and a key factor in transforming interpersonal communication. As the relationship between children and their parents is one of the most fundamental social relationship in life, I was interested in seeing whether smartphones may be taking away some of the joys of parenting,” said Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia, the corresponding author of the study.

Kushlev was involved with previous research that indicated smartphones could lead to distraction, which ended up undermining the benefits of social interaction. The study found that people derived less enjoyment from a meal with friends and family when phones were present compared to when phones were absent.

For the new research, Kushlev and his colleague conducted a field experiment with parents who were attending a science museum with their children.

The researchers randomly assigned 200 parents into two groups — one group was told to use phones as much as possible while the other was told to use phones as little as possible. They found that parents who were instructed to maximize their smartphone use reported feeling less attentive and less socially connected.

The researchers then conducted a daily diary study, where they surveyed 292 parents about their smartphone use over 1 week. They found that smartphone use undermined parents’ quality of
attention, which in turn predicted lower feelings of connection with their children.

“The key message is that, as enticing and useful as they might be, smartphones can make spending time with your children feel less meaningful than it would otherwise be,” Kushlev told PsyPost.

“Critically, however, our study shows that how much you use your phone matters: Using it a lot while you are with your children would take away more from your experience than using it only a little bit (e.g., to quickly respond to a message rather than lose yourself in your Facebook feed).”

“We found much larger negative effects in the context of a fun experience—spending time with your children at a science museum—than in parents’ daily life,” Kushlev added. “An important question is whether phones might actually improve parental experience during the less exciting and more boring parts of parentings, such as during a long road trip (for the parent who isn’t driving, of course).”

However, he cautioned that the findings should not be exaggerated.

“Our research does not show that phones make parenting meaningless — just that they can make it feel a little less meaningful when used excessively,” Kushlev remarked.

The study, “Smartphones distract parents from cultivating feelings of connection when spending time with their children“, was authored by Kostadin Kushlev and Elizabeth W. Dunn.