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The Insidious Connection Between Electronics Use and Childhood Emotional Neglect

Let’s face it, the internet is a marvelous thing. If you aren’t old enough to remember what it was like before we had it, I’m sure you are nevertheless aware of the great advantages the internet has brought to the world.

But, as we all know, the internet has a dark side. In fact, it can become a burden for many families in some very important ways.

Most parents are aware of the risks of child predators and the problems caused by reduced physical activity in children that the internet can cause. But there is one major danger that few parents consider.

The internet is a significant contributor to Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.

If left unchecked, the internet can come between you and your children and cause significant problems that the children will take forward into their adult lives.

The Insidious Connection Between Electronics and Childhood Emotional Neglect

Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN, happens when parents fail to respond enough to the emotional needs of their child.

The most important word in this definition is enough. Children need enough emotional awareness and response from their parents to learn that their emotions matter, and how to read, understand, and cope with them.

For young children and their parents, electronics and the internet can be a helpful tool to remedy tiredness or boredom. That’s not necessarily a problem if they are used with care and communication.

But it can be all too easy for children and parents to unwittingly allow electronics and the internet to become an easy safety net, or fallback position, to manage the child’s emotions in general.

What might this look like? Using screen time as an automatic go-to solution, soother or distractor, when your child is genuinely upset, angry, hurt, sad or frustrated.

Again, it’s only a problem if it’s used instead of connecting with your child and working with him to understand and manage his emotions. And when it leads to your child not receiving enough of that vital emotional validation, emotional connection, and emotion education from you to set him up for a rich and successful emotional life in adulthood.

Tips For Parents To Use Electronics In An Emotionally Responsible Way

  1. Keep in mind that electronics can actually be a helpful parenting tool when they are used in a balanced way and with good communication with your child.
  2. Start as young as possible limiting your child’s access to electronics. Walk the line on allowing your child to lead a normal technological life but also making sure she does not have unlimited access for as long as you can (it’s never too late to start this, as long as your child is under your roof).
  3. Taking your child’s devices away during homework time (when possible), when spending time with friends, at mealtimes, and at night are great ways to instill a balanced reliance on electronics in your child.
  4. When you hand your young child a device try to communicate what the device is being used for. For example, “You seem tired. Want to watch a show to rest a bit? Then we’ll have dinner.” These types of explanations, when done regularly, convey to your child that a device is a tool, not a way of life.
  5. Never hand your child a device because she is having feelings, as this teaches your child that using electronics to escape her feelings is a good strategy. It also misses a valuable opportunity to teach your child about his feelings, how to name them, share them and use them in a healthy way. These are skills your child will need for his entire lifetime (see the example below).

So the bottom line is that electronics are not going to go away. They are here to stay in all of our lives. The best any of us parents can do is set a good example for our children by using them responsibly ourselves, plus actively teach our children how to be responsible with them.

Most importantly, we can avoid using electronics as a way to soothe or escape our children’s emotions or avoid their emotional needs.

An Example Of A Parent’s Responsible Use Of Electronics

11-year-old Jordan walks in the door from school at an unusually quick pace. Looking down at the floor, he drops his backpack on the floor with extra force and starts running up the stairs to his room.

Jordan’s dad, in his adjacent home office, watches this process and realizes that something is amiss. He closes his laptop and heads up to Jordan’s room to check on him.

“What’s up, Guy? How was school today?”

“Fine Dad, I just want to play this video game right now,” Jordan answers quickly, seemingly annoyed that his dad is there.

“Whoa, whoa, take those headphones off a sec, OK? I can see you’re upset about something, what is it?

With a sigh, Jordan removes his headphones and says, “I made an F on my algebra test. It’s so unfair, I studied for hours and I understood it all! But the teacher put bizarre problems on the test. Everybody said so, it wasn’t just me.”

Jordan’s dad then talks him through the process of understanding how this happened and what went wrong. He validates Jordan’s feelings by saying, “Of course you’re disappointed and angry about this. You care about your grades, and that’s a very good thing about you.”

Then, together, they make a plan for Jordan to talk with his teacher about a solution.

After this talk, Jordan appears calmer. At that point, dad picks up Jordan’s headset and puts it back on his head. “Play a game for a bit and then come downstairs for a snack before you start your homework, OK?” 

In this conversation, Jordan’s dad has taught Jordan how to notice, validate, understand, and act on his emotions.


Never hesitate, from an early age, to come between your child and her electronics. You are your child’s primary emotional connection, and you will never let her electronics get in the way of that.

To learn much more about exactly how to validate your child’s emotions, teach your child how to handle his emotions, and how to prevent and reverse Emotional Neglect in your child of any age, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and difficult to remember, so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

The Insidious Connection Between Electronics Use and Childhood Emotional Neglect

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2018). The Insidious Connection Between Electronics Use and Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Oct 2018
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