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“Just put your phone away” is not helpful

“Technoference” can affect parent-child interactions, but the research is correlational—and complicated. We've put together a free handout to help you break it down for parents. 

September 11, 2022

Note: This review was updated in January 2023


We know the importance of parent-child interactions for language learning (and social-emotional development, and many other things). A big part of relationship-based therapies is supporting parents in those attuned interactions. But… easier said than done! Especially when our attention is ever-increasingly divided.


The research on “technoference”


Technoference refers to the interruption of social interactions by personal technologythink being out to dinner with someone who keeps checking their phone. We've all been there. This includes interactions with children, which has the possibility of affecting development and learning. Just like screen time, though, interpreting the research can get dicey because we get into correlation -vs.-causation-land. We would need highly controlled longitudinal studies to really understand what is causing what, and to what extent there are additional confounding variables at play.


“ technology may serve as an outlet for stressed parents and cause disruptions in the flow of parent–child interactions.”


– Uzundağ et al., 2022


That being said, the correlational research does suggest that technoference is associated with increased challenging behaviors and executive function difficulties in children, relational difficulties for couples and co-parents, and aspects of parent-child attachment. But before we start saying things like “parents just need to get off their phones” (or, I’m a terrible parent because I’m addicted to Instagram), let’s think about this with a wider lens and a healthy dose of compassion and empathy. 

Parental phone use. The Informed SLP
Manasa RB, M.Sc SLP

Stress can play a big role in phone use


Uzundağ et al.’s survey of mothers of children under six (this is all self-report, so take that with a grain of salt) suggests that mothers with higher levels of stress engage in more “problematic smartphone use,” like frequently checking notifications. The problematic smartphone use was then associated with increased technoference during parent-child interactions. The stressors reported by the mothers went beyond just parenting stress (which in and of itself can be chronic and overwhelming, especially for parents of children with disabilities) to include relationships, time, health, and financial stressors.


Why the connection between stress and phone use? Perhaps you can relate to what the authors describe. First of all, stress can make us more impulsive, which can make it harder to not be checking our phones all the time. Research has also shown that we often use our phones as a coping mechanism to distance ourselves from daily life stressors and find a virtual escape. They can also be a source of social support and connection.  


Some ways to approach this topic


First, grab our free parent educational handout to share with families who ask you about this topic. There's a Spanish version as well!


Here’s what we’re not going to do: get on a high horse and gallop around telling parents to use their phones less or shaming them (or ourselves) for being on their phones. In fact, we may choose to not approach this topic at all! It might simply not be a priority for the parent at this time—and that’s ok! We all have limited cognitive resources, and changing habits is hard. 


One way to start the conversation, though, is to suggest that parents turn off phone notifications during dedicated time with their child (and maybe during your sessions?), similar to how we may encourage them to turn off the TV. We can then have parents reflect on how it felt, and if it allowed them to be more fully engaged with their child. If they seek our support in changing this habit, we can encourage them to get curious (with plenty of self-compassion) about what roles their phones may be serving for them. If parents would like a rule of thumb, Cari Ebert’s suggestion could be helpful: Would it be appropriate to read a book in this situation? If no, then it may not be the time and place to be on your phone.


Uzundağ, B. A., Oranç, C., Keşşafoğlu, D., & Altundal, M. N. (2022). Relations among self-reported maternal stress, smartphone use, and mother–child interactions. Journal of Child and Family Studies. [open access]

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