Parenting in the digital age

Do our digital lives make us less connected to our children? Not necessarily!

Originally published on Medium, March 2019

Worried about your kids’ screen time? It’s all over the newspapers, it’s splashed on the screens in our hands. Children’s development — cognitive, emotional, social — and relationships are thought to be at risk because of the amount of time they spend with their multifarious devices. Toy companies are constantly coming up with the new digital child development toy — that teaches them while the parent can take a break. It promises peace and quiet for you, enhanced cognition and problem solving for the child. Win-win… The nature of human relationships at a very early age could very well be changing in the digital age.

It’s not just kids’ digital lives that society is anxious about — it is our screen time as parents too. Go to any playpark and you will see a parent pushing their child on the swing, one-handed, the other busy hand, thumb extended, endlessly scrolling through cat videos and Medium articles warning about the perils of social media… It’s easy to judge a parent on their phone, but in truth they may be organising a play date in the park to help their child make friends or checking out the events at the museum. Connectedness in the digital world has brought us a wealth of benefits and it’s unclear yet what impact parents’ screen time actually has.

But what our screen-time does do, at the very least, is to divert our attentional resources away from our children and to diminish our interaction. That can be problematic because the relationship between parent and child in particular is fundamental for our children’s development, and how they will relate to others, including their own children. It is unsettling to contemplate that the changing nature of humanity’s relationships with each other literally rests in the palm of our hand.

But is that all that the digital age has to offer parents — worry, anxiety and fundamental change in human relationships? Of course not!

Kitty Howarth, Diana Onu and Dan Marshall are three psychologists, parents and friends who came up with an idea that uses the ubiquitous technology in everybody’s pockets to help parents spend time with their children away from the screens. To build, create and make instead of watching and consuming; and to tell and share stories together instead of listening passively to someone else’s creativity. To strengthen the connection to each other.

The idea behind their project (called Arttachment) came when Kitty, an educational psychologist, realised that the arrival of her newborn baby had changed the nature of her relationship with her firstborn son. She couldn’t spend as much time as she used to with him. The bond between them needed more support. But what to do? Luckily, being an educational psychologist, despite juggling newborn and toddler, she had some ideas that she could try out. She decided, based on her son’s interests for creativity, to schedule some bonding sessions with her son using arts, crafts, story-telling and massage. “It was like an extra top-up of love”, Kitty recalls.

She invited some friends round who had toddlers as well. In her living room (spilling out into the garden when the weather allowed), they would make art with their children and focus on their relationships. Dreamcatchers were made, giant spider webs were woven, aeroplanes were built from cardboard boxes and most important of all was the touch and the togetherness, the sharing and the shared stories.

Kitty wanted to share her experience with others.Together with two friends, Diana & Dan, research psychologists who develop apps based on psychological science, they came up with Arttachment. The project fuses art with the psychological concept of attachment, putting it all in an app to help parents connect with their children.

How does an app help with relationships? The idea is that parents can schedule in special Arttachment time, time to focus on the relationship with their children. To do a fun, creative project together — not focusing on the outcome itself but on the process, on the shared experience and making mess together. The app can notify, can give instructions and ideas about projects, but the creative activity is not the focus — it’s just the tool. The team are also drawing on their psychology background to design suggestions on using these creative projects as opportunities to encourage numeracy, language development, problem-solving, creativity and emotional awareness.

On top of this, the team realised from existing survey research that many parents lacked confidence in child development knowledge, especially about socio-emotional development. So with that in mind, a series of accessible child-development animations were created that are only 2–3 mins in length and so are perfect for parents to view in the brief periods that are available to them.

There is nothing quite as important as how our children relate to us as parents and how we relate to them. It is the foundation of their socio-emotional development, it creates the landscape for relating with friends, wider family and their peers as they grow up and mature into adulthood and potentially go on to have children of their own.

In our relationship with others, smartphone technology is a tool like any other. It can be abused and misused and cause all sorts of problems. Or it can help us reach our goals and be the parents we want to be.