Parents searching for elusive work-life balance may see smartphones and tablets as a way to escape the office in time to be home for dinner each night, but these gadgets can also be a huge distraction and source of stress, a recent study suggests.
When researchers asked a group of parents to slow down and answer detailed questions about how and when they use mobile technology, people revealed a lot of internal conflict about how the devices are changing their lives.
"Every time a new technology is introduced, it disrupts things a little, so in many ways this is no different from the anxieties that families and our culture felt with the introduction of the TV or telephone," said lead study author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrics researcher at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.
"What is different is the rate of adoption and saturation of our households with mobile technology compared to these older technologies (e.g., it took the iPad 80 days to reach 50 million global users, compared to 14 years for televisions) - so we have less time to reach a new homeostasis with each of them," Radesky said by email.
As smartphones and tablets blur the lines between work, home and social lives, parents are struggling to balance it all and this may be causing internal tension, conflicts and negative interactions with kids, Radesky and her coauthors note in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
To explore how parents feel about these gadgets, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 35 caregivers, including mothers, fathers and grandmothers.
On the one hand, many of the participants credited the devices with allowing them to spend more hours at home with their young children. But on the flipside, they felt pressure to stay constantly plugged in and responsive to emails from work even during playtime with kids or risk being perceived as "bad employees."
"It's the fear of being irrelevant within your professional career," one father in the survey said.
The more work popped up on those tiny screens, the more parents paid attention to devices instead of their children, many participants said. Then, the more kids acted up to get their parent's attention, the more parents tended to snap at them.
Sometimes, though, these devices can also provide a much-needed break, whether it's a little time for video games or catching up with friends on social media. "It is my escape, but I'm not sure it's the healthiest escape, so I have conflict around that," one mother in the study said.
The trouble is that parents can't focus well on work or children when they're trying to do both at once, said Larry Rosen, professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
"Younger generations believe that they can multitask with anything and that is simply not true," Rosen, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
"What they rapidly discover is that they cannot do two tasks together as well as each separately, and, in fact, it adds another layer of stress to their already stressed lives raising children," Rosen added.
Even when bringing work home on a tablet or phone seems impossible to avoid, there's still plenty parents can do to minimize stress for everyone in the household.
One thing that helps is creating device-free time, whether it's a ban on technology during dinner or before bed or right after everyone gets home for the day, Radesky said.
There are also apps that can track how much time parents spend on their tiny screens to help pinpoint opportunities to cut back.
Parents can also tune into which activities are the most stressful, and try to avoid these tasks when it's family time.
"So much of their lives are contained in these devices - work, friendships, world news, loads of information - so they elicit much more in-depth cognitive and emotional responses from us, and this can be even harder to balance with attention to each other," Radesky said.