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Smartphones may free Mom and Dad to do more parenting, not less

Parents who are busy with their smartphones speak more harshly to their kids, one study says. Another notes that a baby's development may be harmed by a parent's excessive texting. But that may not be the whole story.

There's no question digital technology — and smartphones in particular — have changed human interaction, including parenting. But the discussion is more nuanced than some headlines and studies suggest, says New York Times' Farhad Manjoo in a blog post entitled "You Don't Have to Feel Very Guilty About Using Your Smartphone While Parenting."

It's even possible, he notes, that you've been able to attend more of your child's events because technology allows you to do some work on the fly.

"If you've got kids and an amenable, digital-friendly job, you've most likely performed similar work-life acrobatic feats. These situations come with no small amount of guilt. You worry that while you're trying to do two things at once, you're accomplishing neither. You're juggling work and parenting and you're inadequate at both," writes Manjoo.

Manjoo adds, "We rarely consider how, by liberating us from the office, smartphones have greatly expanded the opportunity for certain kinds of workers to increase their involvement in their children's lives. Because you can work from anywhere thanks to your phone, you can be present and at least partly attentive to your children in scenarios were, in the past, you'd have had to be totally absent. Even though my son had to yell for my attention once when I was fixed to my phone, if I didn't have that phone, I would almost certainly not have been able to be with him that day — or at any of numerous school events or extracurricular activities. I would have been in an office. And he would have been with a caretaker."

The study about parents speaking harshly, led by Boston University pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, was based on observations of parent-child interactions when parents were using their smartphones in a mealtime setting.

“What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids,” she told Time magazine when the study was published in Pediatrics. Wrote Alice Park, "While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were 'a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction' between the adults and the children."

That negative view of smartphone use while parenting was shared by psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair in an interview with NPR. She wrote a book about parenting, "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."

Wrote NPR's Patti Neighmond: "And when parents focus on their digital world first — ahead of their children — there can be deep emotional consequences for the child, Steiner-Adair says. 'We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don't matter, they're not interesting to us, they're not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them,' she says."

Parent distraction is not the only concern that has been raised about excessive smartphone use. A study from Kent State suggests that the handy device may be cutting into exercise and physical activity time, thus impacting health and perhaps turning us all into a nation of slugs.

Manjoo acknowledges the negatives, but notes that "studies like this are incomplete, because they can't address two questions that are central to the debate about smartphones and parenting. First, how attentive would smartphone-distracted parents have been in pre-smartphone times? If we didn't have phones would be have been paying total attention to our children, or would we have found distraction in books, newspapers, TV or our own heads?"

And how often would parents have had to simply stay away from their kids because of competing demands like work?

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco