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Are we too plugged in as parents?

Benita Alexander-Noel Benita Alexander-Noel, Dateline NBC Producer

I've never forgotten her name: Morgan Lee Pena, a gorgeous little 2-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who loved to sing. I never met Morgan, only her grieving parents. Morgan was killed when a driver talking on his cell phone ran a stop sign and slammed into her mom's car.

Dateline's story about Morgan, and the dangers of distracted driving, aired 9 years ago. That was before texting was ubiquitous, and before a single state had passed a ban on the use of cell phones behind the wheel. It was also before I became a mom myself. But I was so distressed by the anguish Morgan's parents were dealing with, and so moved by her mom's determined efforts to educate anyone who would listen about the dangers of distracted driving, that I promised myself I would never again use my cell phone while driving.

It's a promise I've broken too many times, and each time, I've thought about Morgan. Once, my daughter heard me say "Sorry Morgan" out loud as I scrambled to find the earpiece I should have been using all along. "Who's Morgan Mommy?" she asked from the backseat. I paused for a moment. "Morgan was a very special little girl, just like you, who was hurt in a car accident because someone was talking on a cell phone instead of concentrating on driving. And that's why Mommy shouldn't use her phone either."

These past few weeks as we put together our segment on distracted driving for Kate Snow's Dateline hour "The Perils of Parenting," I've thought about Morgan a lot. On the legislative front, a great deal has changed since her tragic death, with 30 states now banning texting behind the wheel, and 28 restricting the use of cell phones by novice drivers. But in many ways, the landscape has become far more complicated. Everyone seems to have a cell phone now, if not two, and with blackberries and texting added to the picture, we've become more addicted to our devices than most of us really want to admit. I'm fairly certain you could stand on virtually any busy intersection with a camera these days, and in no time, capture video of one driver after another dangerously distracted by a phone or blackberry.

So, really, how shocked can we be to learn that although most teens say they are well aware of the potential dangers of texting behind the wheel, 1 in 3 of them fess up to doing it anyway?

On the one hand, parents are sternly lecturing their teens about not using phones behind the wheel, yet on the other many of them do it themselves. What this seems to teach kids, beginning at a very young age, is that no matter what mom and dad might say, this is just what everyone does. One teen we interviewed about texting behind the wheel told us "We know we're not supposed to do it. But sometimes, I don't know. We just do it anyways. I don't really know why. It's just that's how it was while we were growing up. Just people would talk on their phones while they were driving."

Even if we don't mean to, are we teaching our children that our devices are like some kind of appendage, permanently attached to our hands, okay to use anywhere and everywhere?

As you'll see in our story, we learned from kids as young as 4-years-old that they truly resent our constant use of phones. It turns out that not only are we sending them mixed messages about the safety of phone use, but we're also making them feel rejected and shoved aside, as if they're not really as important as our beloved devices.

My daughter is only 7, but even before this story made me think really hard about it, I'd already wondered what kind of example I'm setting. She's seen me pick up my phone at a stoplight to quickly try and answer a text, she's been the kid yanking on my arm impatiently because I was too glued to the blackberry to give her the attention she needed.

I think this story has taught me a lesson, or at least I hope it has. As we were nearing the end of Kate Snow's interview with our group of adorable 4 to 7-year-olds, I picked up my blackberry, which had been on silent during the interview but was blinking madly. Suddenly I heard a lot of laughter as several people called my name, and someone said "Let's turn the camera on the producer." I looked up to see Kate, the camera crews, and all of the kids, looking at me as if they'd just caught me with my hand in the cookie jar. Kate had been trying to ask me a question and I was so immersed in my blackberry, I didn't even hear what she said. I apologized sheepishly and begged our cameraman to please not make me part of our story.

Sometimes things just have to wait, at least until you can pull over, at least until you can take a moment with your child instead of using that dismissive "just a second honey, I'm on the phone" wave of the hand. I feel I owe that much to Morgan, and I definitely owe it to my own daughter. If you're a parent, I'm guessing the "The Perils of Parenting" will make you pause to think about your own phone habits too.

Benita Alexander-Noel
Producer, Dateline NBC

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Watch exclusive videos from 'The Perils of Parenthood', airing tonight at 10pm/9c