The dangers of distracted parenting

Being absorbed in technology can divert attention from responsible child supervision

Thursday, September 22 2016

As any parent knows, childcare is a full-time job because children are inherently curious and extremely energetic. To keep them from mischief and out of harm’s way, adults taking care of children have to be alert at all times, while constantly assessing the surrounding environment.

“Mobile technology, such as cellphones and tablets, are extremely attention-intensive and are increasingly becoming an ever-present part of everyday life. Many people have their cellphone within reach 24 hours a day, and may become so absorbed in it, that it detracts their attention from whatever else they are doing at the time,” cautions Mande Toubkin, Netcare’s general manager emergency, trauma, transplant and corporate social investment.

“Young children can very quickly get themselves into dangerous situations if they are not closely supervised. Research in America has, for example, indicated a 10% increase in unintentional childhood injuries since the introduction of the iPhone, and every preventable injury is one too many.”

“Distracted parenting is without doubt becoming more prevalent and presents a very real threat, as parents engrossed in using their smartphones, tablets or laptops may well neglect to look out for their youngsters’ safety, albeit unintentionally. For this reason, we caution anyone caring for children to be vigilant in order to prevent accidents from happening as a result of their attention being diverted from the children.”

Studies have furthermore suggested that parents who believe that they are only on their cellphones for a few seconds at a time, are often absorbed for more than three minutes at a stretch without taking their eyes off the device.

“Just imagine the potential trouble young children could get themselves into in just three minutes while their parents are distracted. Within the home environment alone, an unsupervised child may get their hands on poisonous cleaning products, burn themselves on a hot stove, fall down a flight of stairs, start playing with a sharp knife, or fall in the swimming pool and drown. In Netcare emergency departments, we see on a daily basis how many different types of injuries children can suffer – in particular when they are not closely supervised,” Toubkin notes.

“We are increasingly seeing the growing use of hand-held devices as a factor that has exacerbated the injury rates for young children, including burns, falls and near drowning, to name just a few.

“Distracted parents may become distracted drivers or pedestrians who are not mindful of their children’s best interests. We would like to see greater awareness around distracted parenting. In fact, we believe that it should be elevated to a similar level of public concern as drinking and driving.”

US paediatrician, Dr Jenny Radesky, observed 55 groups of parents and young children eating at fast food restaurants and recorded how often the adults used their smartphones during the meal. The evidence was sobering. Of the 40 caregivers who took out their phones during the meal, about 40% spent the entire meal swiping, texting and paying very little attention to the children in their care.

“Often when a person chokes, for example, it happens silently because the individual cannot cry out to attract attention. Precious, lifesaving moments may be lost if a caregiver is not quick to notice such incidents.”

A New York social experiment observed 50 caregiver-child pairs at various playgrounds and found that 74% of the caregivers were distracted during the two-minute playground sessions. The use of an electronic device accounted for 30% of the distractions, followed by caregivers being distracted by talking with other adults, eating, drinking or reading.

“Children were found to be more likely to engage in dangerous behaviours — such as throwing sand, walking up a slide, sliding down head first and jumping off moving swings – when their caregivers are distracted,” Toubkin observes.

“Cellphones are a prime source of distraction. When a parent gets an urgent work phone call, for example, their minds may be so occupied that they forget to keep a watchful eye on their child without consciously realising it. Unfortunately, a few minutes are all it takes for a tragic accident to occur. In order to help prevent such injuries, the Netcare trauma injury prevention programme, run by Netcare Milpark and Netcare Union hospitals, has distracted parenting as the topic of one of their strategic teaching sessions.

“We are appealing to people who have children in their care to be alert to the dangers of distracted parenting, and maintain their vigilance with regard to child safety, as there could not possibly be anything on your cellphone or tablet that is more important than the wellbeing of a child. Distracted child care is not child care,” she concludes.

Seven suggestions to help prevent accidents as a result of distracted parenting:

  1. Recognise the dangers of distracted parenting, and ask yourself whether you are letting mobile technology divert your attention from supervising your child in a responsible way.
  2. Get up earlier and use the time to check emails and messages before waking your children, so that you can give them the necessary attention when they are up and about.
  3. Keep meals and ‘quality time’ free of any technology: Make a point of not using electronic devices during meals.
  4. Do not get distracted by your phone at all if you are keeping an eye on children anywhere near water, including a swimming pool, bath tub or fish pond.
  5. If you must take a phone call while caring for a child, keep within arm’s reach of the child and watch them closely.
  6. Never check or use your phone while driving – especially when there are children in the car.
  7. If there is a need to keep your device on whilst spending time with your children, explain the reason to them. This will also help you to self-monitor whether it really is necessary to remain ‘connected’ during that period of time.
  8. If you want to use your phone, rather use it to take photographs of your child. They grow up so quickly, and it is important to preserve memories of the good times spend together.


Issued by:          Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact :           Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville and Pieter Rossouw
Telephone:        (011) 469 3016
Email:               [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]