Parents and Tech: Is Your Phone Hurting Your Kids?

Article at a Glance

  • Developmental progress in infancy and childhood is heavily reliant on parent-child interactions.
  • Excessive smartphone use by parents can lead to distress in young children and discourage them from exploring their surroundings.
  • Children can act out when they feel as though they’re competing with technology for their parents’ attention.

Technology is an amazing thing. It keeps us connected with friends and family, expands our minds with new information, and – let’s face it – entertains our kids when we need a little break. But as adults continue to debate how much screen time they should allow their children, they seem to be overlooking an equally important question: Are parents spending too much time on their smartphones? And is their dependence on devices harming their kids?

While it’s easy to focus on limiting screen time for children, there’s a parental addiction to technology that should also be addressed – especially in a world where almost half of adult smartphone users admit they can’t imagine life without their cherished devices.

Being physically present isn’t enough

It may come as a shock that parents in the US now spend more time with their children than they did in the 1960s. However, it’s important to note that quality is more important than quantity – and that being in the same room with your child doesn’t mean anything if you’re only focused on your social media feed.

Developmental progress in infancy and childhood is heavily reliant on parent-child interactions. One of the simplest forms of interaction is what Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child calls “serve and return.” This involves a parent being present and responding appropriately when a child babbles, gestures, or cries.

“As a pediatrician my focus in discussion with parents is almost all directed at the time children spend looking at screens. This is a great reminder for all parents to set down the phone and interact with their children. It reminds me a lot of a quote I heard a long time ago. “Wherever you are, be there.” It is so easy to be in the same room, but not present when on ones phone.”

When a parent is constantly distracted – by a smartphone or anything else – and fails to provide those responses, it can ultimately affect a child’s physical, mental, and emotional health during important stages of their brain development.

A study of infants and toddlers affected by parental smartphone usage found that:

  • Infants and toddlers experienced more distress when their mothers were using their phones.
  • They were less likely to explore their environments when their mothers were using their phones.
  • Children whose mothers reported the largest use of mobile devices in their day-to-day lives still showed more negativity and less emotional recovery when their mothers turned off their phones.

Bad behavior triggers

Children crave the love and attention of their parents, so it likely comes as no surprise that kids who don’t receive such attention often act out.

When pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky and her colleagues became concerned about parents ignoring their children when they were on their phones, they began to observe parental phone usage at fast food restaurants. They found that:

  • Children whose parents were absorbed in their devices were more likely to act silly or noisy.
  • Many parents on their phones were irritable or impatient, which further encouraged their children to act out.
  • When children were being ignored, they were missing out on the benefits of conversation and how to read people’s facial expressions.

A battle for attention

The effects of smartphone usage by parents span far beyond the infant and toddler years. One study of children between the ages of 8 and 13 found that:

  • 32% of the children surveyed often felt “unimportant” when their parents used their phones during meals, conversations, or other family times.
  • Many felt they were competing with technology for their parents’ attention.
  • Over half of the children said their parents spend too much time on their phones.

Put down that phone

When you feel an urge to pick up your phone, these tips can help you exercise restraint and mindfulness:

  • Before picking up your phone, check in with yourself. Are you looking to complete a discrete task or are you filling a small gap of boredom?
  • Help train yourself out of mindless scrolling by setting a five minute alarm or using an app to help monitor your phone usage.
  • Put your phone on silent and turn off notifications during family time.
  • When temptation strikes, make a choice to give your children your undivided attention, modeling how to manage technology in a way that meets everyone’s needs.
  • Create a routine which allows you to spend time on your phone when your children are at school or doing other activities.

As society continues to become even more reliant on technology, parental smartphone restraint will become increasingly important. Exercising that restraint can result in long-lasting benefits when it comes to the emotional, social, and physical well-being of your child.

Reviewed on June 13, 2019 by: Doug Later, D.O.
Doug Later, D.O.
Board-certified Pediatrician

Dr. Later is a father of three boys, a die-hard Utah Jazz fan, and a lover of the outdoors. He has an interest in sports medicine and autism spectrum disorder. Languages: English, Spanish

Physicians Plaza
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