Sneak peek: Insights into why parents on phones can impact family life. Ways to prioritize presence and put technology in its place,
I got my first smartphone when my oldest was a newborn (summer 2009). I had told my husband for months that I didn’t need one (he already had one) but my handy little flip phone died and I didn’t have much choice.
Honestly, I don’t know how I would have survived those newborn days without that little hand-held link to the outside world. He was a very fussy baby who hated the car seat so we spent many hours at home…usually with him strapped to my chest and me bouncing on an exercise ball (the only thing that calmed him).
My phone was my lifeline during those months. I called my mom to cry about why he wouldn’t sleep, I posted cute pictures of him on Facebook and I Googled every question I had about newborn habits and “difficult” babies.
Now fast forward a few years and the role of parents on phones is even more prominent. Being a stay-at-home/work-at-home mom, the smartphone has become an irreplaceable tool for me. They are so powerful now that I can craft a graphic for my blog on my phone while my kids play on the playground.
But what about the negative underbelly of digitally distracted parenting? I have found myself saying, “wait a minute I just need to do this one thing,” to my kids a lot more now that they are older and their demands can usually wait longer.
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Parents on Phones
The Role of Technoference
But how does this make them feel? How do you feel when your spouse says, “wait a minute” while typing away on his/her phone when you are trying to talk?
Luckily, the innovative researchers at Illinois State University are beginning to help answer these questions with hard data. Their recent study considered how the parent-child relationship is affected by parents on phones (particularly distracted by phones). Now that’s a good research question!
– 170 couples with young children
– parents were asked about their problematic mobile device usage (e.g., not being able to resist checking messages, thinking about messages a lot)
– parents were asked about “technoference” in their relationship with their child (e.g., how often devices interrupt conversations)
– parents were asked about their children’s behavior (e.g., internalizing behavior like whining or sulking and externalizing behavior like hyperactivity or hot temper)
How Cell Phones Affect Family Relationships
The study’s results were perhaps not surprising but might give us all something to meaningfully consider. Parents who reported more problems managing their device usage were more likely to experience technoference in their relationship with their child. In other words, parents on phones (who were “hooked”) were more likely to allow this to interfere with their relationship with their child.
What’s more surprising is the behavior we see among kids in the study. Kids whose parents showed signs of technoference were more likely to exhibit behavioral issues. In other words, in situations where parent-child relationships were disrupted by technology, kids were more likely to exhibit negative behavior (both internalizing and externalizing).
** Okay, the usual caveats with social science research apply here.** Although this is a well-conducted study, we cannot from one study prove causation. We do not know if the technoference experienced in these parent-child relationships is causing the children’s negative behavior OR if the parents of kids who exhibit behavioral problems are more likely to be on their phones a lot (perhaps as a distraction from misbehaving kids).
However, what we can tell from this study is important, even groundbreaking–the interaction we have with our phones has the potential to impact our relationship with our kids (either through technoference or through escapism).
When you think about it, this is a daunting reality. A device that started out as a tool now has the power to influence our parenting. These devices are not going away; we all know that. So how do we manage our phone time and our relationships with our kids?
Although even now, 11 years after I got that first smartphone, I still struggle with using it as a tool and not a constant distraction. This last year of pandemic life hasn’t made that any easier. In my mind, it’s all about habits. If I can establish healthy screen habits, I can model that for my kids (now 11 and 7 years old) and keep my own screen use under control as well.
A few habits I’ve established this year that have helped:
- Limited or no screen time first thing in the morning. This has been one habit that has really helped my screen usage. I start the day with books (the paper kind), journaling, prayer or meditation. It really makes all the difference in how the day begins and my own mental health.
- Return to old-fashioned cookbooks for meal prep. I read this tip on a blog and I can see it helping already. Instead of pulling recipes from my many (way too many) Pinterest collections, I’ve gone back to paper cookbooks to plan meals for the week. This cuts down on screen time and honestly, makes cooking more enjoyable.
- No screens at the table. I’ve made a real effort this year to keep this rule. I’m not at 100% yet because my boys and I like to listen to podcasts at meals (especially since they’ve been online learning at home) but we are making good progress.
- Prioritize eye contact. I’ve made an intentional effort to make eye contact with my kids when they are speaking to me. I know this sounds simple but if you really make an effort to pay attention, you might notice (as I did) that I often answer their questions while still looking at a screen. They notice! They’ve even mentioned it a few times. This is not the model I want to set. In the past months, I have intentionally tried to break this habit. It has been challenging due to home learning and the onslaught of questions that they bring each day, but it’s worth the effort.
The Smart Parenting Mantra for Technology
I struggle with this as much as anyone but the one idea I keep coming back to is VALUE. I never want my kids to feel like I value technology over them. I don’t want anyone important in my life to feel that way. I never want to value time on devices more than real-life relationships. The same goes for my kids–I never want them to value technology more than in-person relationships.
To remind myself of these values, I’ve created a printable mantra I call “In Our Home.” It simply outlines the values that we hold in our home regarding technology use and relationships.
I would love to share this printable with you! Just fill out the box below and it will be sent to your inbox for you to print and hang up as a reminder for you too. You get all 3 versions!