Parents Need to Check Their Own Screen Time Habits

Woman looking at smartphone walking down sidewalk with child with her

Leon Fishman / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Worrying about how many hours kids spend in front of screens is one thing, but what about the effects of parents' noses being buried in their phones?

To all the adults who are worried about how much time kids are spending in front of screens these days, here's an important question: If you're a parent, how much time are you spending on your phone, particularly in the presence of your children? This is a topic that has not garnered the attention it should, considering its severity.

Writing for The Atlantic, Erika Christakis argues that we should be more concerned about tuned-out parents than screen-obsessed young children. It is not that kids aren't harmed by excessive screen time -- they absolutely are and this needs to be addressed, too -- but adults whose relationships with their kids are constantly disrupted by phones could be fuelling a host of long-lasting and potentially harmful issues.

Parents today, Cristakis writes, are suffering from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called 'continuous partial attention':

"This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory."

Parents adopt a unique way of speaking with their children, something that's been called by the 'serve and return' style, and by psychologists a 'conversational duet.' You know how it sounds -- higher-pitched, simpler vocabulary, an exaggerated enthusiasm. Babies love it and learn rapidly from it. The style evolves as the child grows, but s/he still relies heavily on constant, repetitive, simplified conversation with adults. To quote Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University,

“Language is the single best predictor of school achievement, and the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults.”

The problem is that smartphones disrupt the flow of this "resonant adult-child cueing system." Glancing at a lit-up screen, responding to a text, doing a quick scroll through Instagram breaks the connection that may have been there seconds before, and actually impedes a young child's ability to learn and retain that information. As Hirsh-Pasek says,

“Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens."

Christakis goes on to describe several fascinating studies in which parents and children have been observed both in study situations and surreptitiously in public. In the former setting, when parents were instructed to teach something to their child, the child did not learn it if the lesson was disrupted by a phone call. In the latter, children whose parents were on their phones exhibited more attention-seeking behavior -- a trend that Christakis predicts we'll see more of as children rely on tantrums to get their parents' attention.

The inverse happens, too, with irritated parents lashing out at kids for disrupting their screen time. This behavior is commonly associated with addiction and can lead parents to misread their own kids' emotional cues: "A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention."

This isn't to say that parents should be at a child's beck and call, every hour of the day. Each needs their own space and time alone, whether it's simply to enjoy the silence or accomplish specific tasks. But what we need to fight back against is this nebulous zone of distracted, inattentive parenting that's physically present, but not really there. It benefits no one at the end of day.

This message is particularly relevant now, as parents of school-aged kids prepare for the start of summer vacation. Kids will be home more than usual, which means that an at-home parent's phone habit will be more visible. As someone who works from home (and relies on my phone for key aspects of my job), I am hyper-aware of the amount of time I spend on it, especially when my kids are watching, and I've been mulling over how to establish a healthy balance during the next two months of summer.

What's hard is that so many other things are on a smartphone -- music, timer, weather report, podcasts, camera, lists, map, and the actual phone part that accepts calls (for the few of us who still do this). But even if I'm not wasting time on social media and feel that I'm doing something useful, my kids don't know the difference. They simply see me with my nose buried in my phone. With this in mind, I've created a few goals for myself this summer.

#1: Eliminate the superfluous phone checking. I need to have a real purpose when I reach for my phone; if the urge hits to fill the time, I must resist my phone and find something else to do. For the hours that my children are around, I'm going to follow a checking schedule, e.g. 9 am, noon, and 5 pm, to see what's going on, and try not to exceed that. The goal is to reduce the number of times my kids see me on my phone each day.

#2: Leave the phone behind during 'kid' hours. When I'm spending time with my kids, I cannot be spending time with Instagram or Twitter, too. Unless we're on a tight schedule and I need to keep track of the time, the phone can be left behind.

#3: Turn it off. This is something I want to get better at -- just powering down, whenever the opportunity arises, as opposed to putting it on silent. It's a strange feeling when one's phone is turned off; it's a bit disorienting, but a valuable reminder of how badly we probably need it if it feels that odd.

Who wants to join me in making this a (mostly) phone-free summer?