It was a sunny afternoon in Citywalk when I was suddenly accused of abusing my child.
I was helping my three-year-old wash his hands in the bathroom when I spotted the poster: an image of a little girl looking upset, with the disembodied hands of (presumably) her parents using their mobile phones. The tagline: ‘I shouldn’t be ignored for this’.
That’s true, I thought; we all use our phones way too much.
But then beneath the tagline was this citation: ‘Federal Law No3/ 2016 of Child Protection’.
Woah, hold on a minute now.
I know that law – previously called Wudeema’s Law after the eight-year-old Emirati girl of that name who was tragically starved to death by her father, it protects children’s right to security, freedom from cruel treatment, and their right to care and emotional and psychological stability.
It’s an excellent law, and certainly something that should be spoken about and promoted. But I had never thought that it would apply to me.
And yet, if child abuse or neglect extends to using a phone in front of your child, I think we are almost all guilty.
I contacted the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, a licensed non-profit shelter in the UAE offering protection and support services for women and children experiencing domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking. They were the people behind this poster, which is part of a series in a campaign called #MakeItStop that seeks to educate children and adults about the realities of child abuse. I asked them if they thought that mobile phone use is really bad enough to be considered abuse or neglect.
“We all know about physical abuse and that is the most commonly associated image when we first hear the words “child abuse”,” says Ahmad Mamdoh Ibrahim, media coordinator for the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children.
“But we wanted to highlight the different types of abuse of which many parents and caretakers are guilty of but not necessarily aware. We wanted to portray the voice of a child, ask people to put themselves in the child’s shoes, and possibly realize the harm they are causing.”
Scratch the surface and there are a wealth of recent studies looking at the damaging effects of parental mobile phone use. From stunting a child's linguistic and emotional development, to encouraging poor behaviour, to even affecting a child's ability to process pleasure, some of the findings are heartbreaking.
“There is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that the impact of parent’s use of smartphones and other portable gadgets such as iPads is affecting children’s psychological well-being,” says Dr Rose Logan, consultant psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia.
One of the biggest problems is that most of us have our smartphones with us almost 24 hours a day and we use them without thought. Dr Logan says this sends a powerful negative message to children:
“For a child, seeing their parent constantly distracted or engrossed with their phones whilst they are together says ‘there is something or someone more important than you’.
“The impact may be to their self-esteem and self-worth, it may create feelings of disconnection and may lead to acting out for attention and bids for re-connection. It is likely to have an impact on that child’s social and relational development and sets up patterns of relating that will become the norm for that child.”
It’s just as relevant for newborns as it is for toddlers, says Dr Logan: “For parents with young babies, it is easy assume that it doesn’t matter because they are not talking or are busy feeding. However, caretaking activities are a fantastic opportunity to interact with your baby. Gaining eye contact, allowing them to feel seen, and setting up their expectations of how people will respond to them, are critical elements in brain development. These can all influence the design of the internal working models that will affect how they interact with others in the future.
“It is also where the building blocks of language are laid down, and so extensive smartphone use may negatively impact language development. If an infant’s bids for connection go unmet because their parent is distracted by a phone, they receive a strong message about how the world will receive them. They may well experience the same sort of flat affect that a child whose mother has postnatal depression, which we know can impact a child’s emotional, social and behavioural outcomes if left untreated.”
Whereas reading a book or a magazine is a static, contained activity, mobile phones are a never-ending rabbit hole of visual and aural media vying for your attention, and it’s easy to get lost in them.
How often have you had multiple apps or browser tabs open at any one time? Or subtly conducted several WhatsApp conversations while also having coffee with a friend? It's all part of our modern state of 'continuous partial attention', whereby our concentration is fractured by so many different stimuli that we find it almost impossible to pay full attention to any one thing - including our kids.
You don't even need to be actively using your phone to have your attention diverted: A study by the University of Chicago in April this year found that the mere presence of a smartphone damages cognitive activity, curbing our ability to focus and possibly even lowering our IQ.
It’s got so bad that some experts liken our relationship with our mobile phones to that of a serious addiction - we get chemical rewards in the form of the 'happy hormone' dopamine when we use them; it’s a chronic and compulsive habit that is hard to kick; and, whether we are aware or not, our dependence on them is negatively impacting our lives and, worse, the lives and development of our kids.
“While there is no diagnostic code as such, there are studies that have shown people experience a great deal of anxiety when they are not able to access their smart phones,” says Dr Rose Logan.
“I think the key element is how mindful you are of your smartphone use and whether that use is compulsive. If you notice that hours can slip by unnoticed as your browse social media, then you are behaving in a way that is likely to affect your ability to function across all areas of your life. You may find that it impacts your relationships, your mood or even how productive you are at work.”
The way this fracturing of attention impacts our parenting is the most worrying factor, says Ahmad Mamdoh Ibrahim of the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children:
“We have reached a point where our lives are on auto-pilot and we lack the mindfulness to be in the moment,” he says, “But the moment here is not ours. It’s a vital moment that our child needs and attention that the child desperately craves.”
But is it really abuse?
So to go back to what prompted this article in the first place – the poster that states that using your phone in front of your child is tantamount to the sort of neglect that would break Dubai’s Child Protection law.
It seems harsh: parenting is hard work, and not only do we all need to feel connected to the outside world once in a while, most of us have social and professional commitments that require frequent smartphone use. Are we all neglectful parents?
It depends, says Ahmad Mamdoh Ibrahim: “If a parent constantly ignores their child by engaging in different activities - watching TV, chatting on the phone for a long time, using their mobile phone for a long time, etc - so that they don’t pay enough attention to safeguard them from harm or to fulfil their basic needs (one of which is attention, as well as feeding, clothing, teaching, love etc) then this is considered neglect, which is a form of abuse.”
There are two factors that define whether your smartphone use constitutes abuse, Ibrahim continues: “The first indicator is how consistently a parent looks at their phone. Is it for a few minutes for only urgent matters? Or for a longer time for less important matters?
“The second indicator to determine whether it is abuse or not is whether the child is really affected or his needs not fulfilled due to the parent’s misuse of their phone.” Since the evidence shows that the impact of parental smartphone use on children is insidious, gauging whether they are affected by it may be trickier than it seems.
“I would certainly say that extensive smartphone use is a form of emotional neglect and may also jeopardise a child’s safety or, at the extreme, prevent them receiving the basic care they require,” agrees Dr Rose Logan.
"Decisions about how we use our smartphones around our children are as important as deciding what we feed them"
“I think that the research is now clear that there is a negative impact of smartphone use on children, and so decisions about how we use our smartphones around our them are as important as deciding what we feed them, whether we let them watch certain movies, or play with that older child down the street.”
Nevertheless, Dr Logan is realistic about the fact that parents can’t cut phones out of their lives completely: “For better or for worse, smartphones are a part of our and our children’s lives. It is unreasonable to ask parents not to ever use smartphones in front of their children.”
“However, if you can commit to some phone-free time every day - especially at pivotal times such as meal times or after school when your children may need your attention and you have a valuable opportunity to connect with them - that is a good start.
“If you know you have emails to send or messages to read, separate that time from the time you want to spend with your children so that you and they both get the best of that time together. There is no harm in saying ‘I am just going to send an email before we go to the park,’ and then heading off (maybe even phone free!) to enjoy being in each other’s presence.”
In a hyper-connected world, this campaign highlights that it’s time we get really disciplined about connecting properly with the people who really matter.
WATCH: Dr Jenny Radesky, child behaviour expert and paediatrician at the University of Michigan CS Mott Children's Hospital, talk about how your mobile phone use is affecting your relationship with your children:
THE EVIDENCE: HOW USING YOUR PHONE AFFECTS YOUR KIDS
We all know that when our face is buried in our Facebook feed we’re probably not paying as much attention to our kids as we should be, but a University of Michigan study found that this reduction in verbal and non-verbal interactions could have a damaging effect on children’s linguistic and emotional development, since face-to-face interactions are the primary way in which children learn.
Using your phone could also make your little one more naughty: a study published in the journal Child Development, found that technology-based interruptions – which they dub ‘technoference’ - in parent-child interactions is associated with greater incidence of poor behaviour in children, who act out in order to get their parent’s attention.
And perhaps saddest of all, an animal-based study published in Translational Psychiatry found that distracted parental attention to newborns (who you might think aren’t even aware of you using your phone) resulted in detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially (and most upsettingly) their ability to process pleasure. This could have potential clinical implications.