iRelief? …or iDistraction?

How many parents do you know who readily admit that they have a problem controlling their smartphone use around their children?  I hear about it often.  Parents tell me about their efforts to curb their Facebook addictions and their struggles to text less when they’re with their kids.  They want to be more present with their children, who typically object to their parents’  phone use.  But it is hard, hard, hard for parents to separate from their phones.

It’s surprising to me that no one talks about the reason why we quickly become addicted to our iDevices, especially when the phenomenon is easily explained by psychology’s behavioral theory.  In the late 1940’s, behaviorist B.F. Skinner described a process called “operant conditioning.”  The aim of operant conditioning was to bring about a desired behavior by reinforcing it on a particular “schedule.”  He trained hungry pigeons, for example, to perform complex tasks by offering them food pellets when they demonstrated the desired behavior.  He found, from his research, that of the various reinforcement schedules he used, the one called a “Variable Ratio” was the most effective.  (Check out the cool video of BF Skinner on this website if you want to see more.)

As he explains in the video, the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement offers a desired reinforcer (e.g., food) at random, unpredictable times.  The pigeons in his experiments were trained to peck a button in order to get food.  The pigeons who were given food at random times demonstrated the most persistent pecking; they did not know how often or after how many pecks food would come.  So they pecked a lot.  They pecked constantly.  They did not stop pecking.  And it became hard for them not to peck.

Our smartphones and iDevices operate on the same schedule.  They are variably reinforcing.  We do not know after how many taps we will get a “reward,” such as an email, a Facebook message, a phone call, or a text.

What does this have to do with parenting?  I propose that when you are a parent, especially a parent of a young child, the “reward” offered by these devices is extra-awesome.  It’s extra-awesome because it can take you out out of the moment.  Away from the whining, the crying, and/or the general drain of parenthood.  Devices that are already incredibly addictive are probably even more addictive when they offer an escape from something you may, quite frankly, hate.  (And by “something,” I mean parenting.  It can be exhausting and boring for parents.  If you don’t believe me, read Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” She has the data.)

Unfortunately, a parent’s smartphone addiction is bad news for children.  The very devices that offer escape, relief, and immediate social rewards to parents are increasing the number of injuries to children (click to read about it).  For example, parents cannot simultaneously look at their phones and watch their children.  Last fall, I attended a very impressive panel discussion about the importance of free play in childhood.  One of the panelists, Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood, reported that in spite of our attempts to make playgrounds safer, the number of children injured on playgrounds has remained remarkably stable over time (that is, children still get injured on playgrounds at the same rate as they always have).  This holds true, she said, except for the year 2007, when there was a significant spike in playground-related injuries to children.  It is no coincidence that 2007 was the year that the iPhone became available.  Children got hurt more when their parents quit being vigilant.

But, when phones are so addictive, how are parents to stop using them?  BF Skinner said that the best way to extinguish a behaviorally conditioned response is to quit cold turkey.  For moms and dads to abandon their phones, then, they have to either stop using them altogether, or somehow make tapping them less rewarding.  This is incredibly hard to do when the fleeting, momentary rewards of parenting young children cannot compete with the immediate gratification of  smartphones.  

Yet, there is a way to make smartphones a little less rewarding.  A parent who wants to curb phone use can start to focus what their distraction is costing them.  While the escape from the negative aspects of parenting is very rewarding, missing out on the bits of joy parenthood brings is not rewarding at all.  If you are a parent trying to curb your phone use, I suggest you focus on all the good stuff that you are not getting when you are on your phone.  After all, you can’t text and have a dance party with your preschooler at the same time.  But if you still find it hard to put the phone down, I understand.  I just hope that you will grapple with the extent of your phone use…and, please, at least don’t use it at the playground.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.



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