THE BLOG
09/18/2015 03:45 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016

The Heartbreak of Digitally-Preoccupied Parenting

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As a child psychologist, I often meet with children who confess that they feel empty inside because their parents ignore them in favor of their smartphones. Thankfully, these kids typically give me permission to speak with their parents about their feelings. When I do talk with these parents, most will make amends.

Yet for every child I work with, I observe many more in my personal life who are snubbed by digitally-preoccupied parents: a girl of about seven who can't get her dad's attention because he's watching a game on his phone, a solemn young boy whose mom is so taken with posts and pictures on her phone that she doesn't say a word to him for the entire meal.

But I'm not these children's doctor. As much as I wish to speak up on their behalf, I can't. So I bite my lip and turn away.

These heartbreaking moments haunt me. I know from my clinical practice that digitally-preoccupied parenting tears a wound in children's souls. If these experiences are repeated for months and years, they will have a profound effect. Children are likely to feel abandoned and unworthy. As they grow older, they have a good chance of becoming depressed and angry. Some will cut on themselves to dull the pain.

Parents' ignoring their kids in favor of phones is happening far too much. In a study in the journal Pediatrics, the authors describe the familiar occurrence of parents sitting down with their children (ages birth to 10 years) at fast food restaurants. The researchers found that about a third of parents spent the whole meal fully absorbed with their mobile devices at the expense of attending to their children. Kids who sought attention were often rebuffed by their tech-engrossed parents. The study's lead author, Jenny Radesky, MD, a pediatrician and mother of two, said: "One child tried to raise his caregiver's face to look at him and not the screen, another said he wasn't done with food that was thrown away, and each time the caregiver just went back to the screen."

Why is this generation of children at risk to play second fiddle to their parents' phones? Because most parents, as noted in surveys, believe that technology is bringing the family closer. So parents have little reason to be concerned about how their phone use affects their child. But the truth is that research is showing us that our tech obsessions are pulling the family apart. Another reason parents less notice their phone overuse is that they are audience to an onslaught of messages hyping the latest phones and apps. Parents are much less likely to hear about the latest research which is showing us that children's connections to their parents build young brains, and that the parent-child bond is the very foundation of our children's happiness and success.

How can we help our children? We need to take a hard look at our priorities. Parents often justify their distracted parenting by saying they are remarkably busy and that phones allow them to get so much done. They also say they need a break from the challenges of parenting. But I can tell you from experience that many parents wish they could get back the moments they have lost with their child. They realize that if they would have invested a little more time this would have saved them from the struggles of raising an emotionally-troubled child. I can also say that preoccupied parenting leads kids to act out and become more difficult to raise, feeding a cycle in which parents use their phones even more to escape. So put your phone down, not all the time, but a lot. Discover how powerful your undistracted, loving presence can be. You may find the rewards so remarkable that you won't feel the itch to turn away.