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Pay Attention: Texting and Parenting Don’t Mix

Last updated on 2012.11.27

Full disclosure: I'm glued to my computer screen right now. My wife is on her laptop My six-year-old is running back and forth across the apartment with a large scarf—I'm a bird! ...Now I have a cape!" No thunk yet, but we're listening... I think.

But when we walk down the street for burritos, we're not pushing buttons. We're talking to each other and the little one between us. We're keeping the radar tuned to her and to the meatheads letting their cars coast by us while they focus on their phones.

Texting and driving is bad enough; now the Wall Street Journal points to the possible dangers of texting while parenting. After decades of reducing childhood injury rates with safer playground equipment and home kid gear, the U.S. saw injuries to children under age 5 rise 12% from 2007 to 2010:

Statistics from the government's Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks injuries by product type, show children are getting hurt more during activities and at ages that would seem to warrant close supervision. Injuries involving playground equipment among children under five jumped 17% between 2007 and 2010, after trending down the previous five years, the commission said. Injuries involving nursery equipment such as changing tables were up 31% among children under five over that period, after declining over five years. Injuries involving swimming pools climbed 36% in that age group after a slight increase over the prior five years [Ben Worthen, "The Perils of Texting While Parenting," Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2012].

There's no data directly linking parental distraction by texting to more bumps and bruises for the little ones, but the Wall Street Journal (perhaps just hyping the issue to give Pat Powers an excuse to whine more about the nanny state) points to the explosion in smart-phone adoption since Apple's introduction of the iPhone in 2007. They also quote doctors who can see the connection:

"It's very well understood within the emergency-medicine community that utilizing devices—hand-held devices—while you are assigned to watch your kids—that resulting injuries could very well be because you are utilizing those tools," says Dr. Wally Ghurabi, medical director of the emergency center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital.

Adds Dr. Rahul Rastogi, an emergency-room physician at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon: "We think we're multitasking and not really feeling like we are truly distracted. But in reality we are" [Worthen, 2012.09.29].

WSJ cites a number of anecdotes about that deep distraction, including the story of a Connecticut woman who was watching a friend's two-year-old at the pool. She looked down to take a text. The child slipped and sank in the pool. The woman didn't realize something was wrong until she was distracted back to reality by dropping her phone. She told police she was looking at the phone for 20 seconds. The police say the surveillance video shows the woman ignoring the child in favor of her phone for three minutes.

It shouldn't take scary anecdotes or data to tell us the obvious: we're not as smartphone-smart as we think we are. When our fingers and eyeballs are locked on that tiny screen, we aren't watching our kids. As Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass tells WSJ, when we're on the phone, we remove ourselves from the situation. Moms and dads on the phone at the park aren't exercising the situational awareness by which we can anticipate the danger of our little ones climbing too high or running with sticks or wandering off toward the creek. Good parenting means paying attention, and that means putting down the phone.

I look up from the screen and find my little one engrossed in sticking plastic jewels on the clown picture she's drawing for us. No thunk yet...