Facebook vs Face-to-Face: How Technology Threatens Parent-Child Interaction

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Hanen Staff Member

What’s in the News

I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. That is, you’ve probably sent an email on your smartphone, checked Facebook or sent a text, all while in the presence of your children. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid the constant connectivity that life in this century demands. But is this need to connect affecting our connection to our children? An article on January 31, 2011 in the Washington Post, “Parents are Ignoring Their Children for their Blackberry” looks at the effects of technology on parenting and answers this question.

"We have to learn to live with [technology] in a healthy way, according to our human values. And our human values are not to put our kids fifth, after texts, e-mail, Twitter, and everything else"

The article focuses on two sources, the first being Dr. Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and MIT professor who has recently published “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”. Turkle interviewed over 300 young people and 150 adults when researching her book, and found that children felt that their parents paid less attention to them than to their smartphones, especially at mealtime, in the car, during sporting events and even sometimes during bedtime stories. While much of the concern over technology has been children’s use of it, “it’s now children who are complaining about their parents’ habits”, claims Turkle. Instead of asking parents to throw away their devices, Turkle provides a more practical suggestion: “These technologies are with us, but we have to learn to live with them in a healthy way, according to our human values. And our human values are not to put our kids fifth, after texts, e-mail, Twitter, and everything else”.

Dr. Patrick Kelly, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Centre, was also interviewed for the Washington Post article. Dr. Kelly explains that paying attention to devices instead of children sends a confusing message to children. “If you’re taking [parental attention] away from the child, for what looks like it is not a good reason, kids might think, “What am I doing wrong that my parents don’t like me?” and may start acting out to get their parents’ attention because they have a hard time distinguishing positive from negative attention”, explains Dr. Kelly. He also mentions that “Eye contact is the number-one sign that you’re relating to your kid”.

The author of the Washington Post article summarizes that all of the experts interviewed recommended that parents manage technology responsibly, including “setting limits and spending tech-free time with their children or partners every day”.

Our Views on the News

Is technology really that much of a threat to parenting? One could argue that living in a technological age affords certain benefits to parents. Because of technology, some parents can spend more time with their children as they can work from home or work unusual hours and schedules. As children get older, Facebook and text messaging offer additional ways to stay connected with children. The internet provides families with a wealth of information about parenting and child development. After all, if it weren’t for the internet, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now.

"Being on-call for work can blur the boundaries between work and family life, which means that parents face more distractions and stress during times of interaction with their children"

Parenting is no easy task. There have always been challenges and distractions which prevent parents from spending as much quality time with their children as they would like. Life has always gotten in the way. However, the pressure for constant connectivity nowadays makes many parents feel like they are always “on-call” either for work or social purposes. Being on-call for work can blur the boundaries between work and family life, which means that parents face more distractions and stress during times of interaction with their children.

An “Early Years Study” commissioned by the Ontario government in 1999 reported that “many parents who are in the labour force are experiencing what has been called the ‘family time deficit’, which is associated with difficulties in balancing of work and family responsibilities”. Furthermore, the report described the Canadian family as being increasingly “stretched” and “stressed”, which threatens quality parental engagement that is so essential for child development.

The impact of less talk

But does spending less time talking to and interacting with your child really make that much of a difference in terms of her future success? You bet it does! In a ground-breaking study titled, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children”, Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that children who were exposed to more words per year in their homes by their parents had superior vocabulary and later intellectual abilities.

The bottom line – children have better outcomes when their parents talk to them more often. In a New York Times article about the effect of technology on parenting, Betty Hart advised parents to “consider how their use of electronic devices might be limiting their ability to meet their children’s needs”.

It’s all about being face-to-face

Does this mean that we are to put down our devices and swear off technology altogether? Of course not. But as the Washington Post article mentions, “there is simply no substitute for face-to-face contact”.

Engaging in face-to-face interactions with children is one of the first strategies put forth in all of the Hanen Programs®. “For a child, being face-to-face with you adds a special quality to the interaction. It brings you closer to her, physically and emotionally, and makes her feel that you’re really with her” (Weitzman & Greenberg, p.75). This important strategy not only encourages children to communicate and initiate, but it lets them know that you are interested in what they say and do. Face-to-face interactions between a parent and child are the building blocks of the child’s emotional, social, and cognitive growth.

It’s about setting limits

So go ahead and surf, post, Tweet, text, email, and chat – some of the time. Just keep in mind that children need ongoing interaction and input from you in order to thrive and learn.

Set aside some consistent, tech-free time in your home. When you take your children to the playground, a restaurant or on a bus, or when you’re playing a game at home or just relaxing together somewhere, avoid the temptation to check your email or respond to a text. Instead, just connect with your children. The long-term benefits of those fun, uninterrupted interactions are immeasurable.


Washington Post Article: “Parents are ignoring their children for their Blackberry”

MIT News article: “The Lonely Crowd”

NY times article: “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In”

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Baltimore, Maryland.

McCain, M. & Mustard, F. (1999). Early Years Study. Toronto: Publications Ontario.

Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2002). Learning Language and Loving It, second edition. The Hanen Centre: Toronto


For more than 35 years, The Hanen Centre has taken a leading role in the development of programs and resources for parents and professionals to help all preschool children develop the best possible language, social and literacy skills, including those children with or at risk of language delays and those with developmental challenges such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, including Asperger Syndrome.

Click on the links below to learn more about how Hanen can help you help children communicate: