Technology and the role it plays in our kids’ lives is a common topic for parenting blogs and playground chit-chat. How much screen time is too much? When should kids get their own phones? Can I effectively monitor what my kids are seeing? Posting? Texting? We worry about their development, the internet content they are consuming and who they are following on social media.
But perhaps the real worry and the better question we should be asking is: How much time do we, the parents, spend on our own devices? And is this adult screen time impacting our kids?
And, so do my kids. Maybe not so much in their words (they are only 4 and 7), but certainly in their actions. Imitation might be the highest form of flattery, but it can also be the cause of cringe-worthy mom guilt. My kids like to make phones with paper and mock me. This can be cute. It can also be a gut punch:
“Hey, Liesee, can you set the table for dinner?”
“Sorry mom, I can’t. I have to text my friend back.”
Did I make them this way? Images of them desperately trying to get my attention while I stare at my phone flash before my eyes. There’s my “Just a second, honey,” followed up with some weak justification or another:
“I’m trying to post this picture on Instagram.”
“I’m texting my friend.”
“I’m just finishing this Amazon order.”
They whine. They roll their eyes. They eventually walk away defeated. It hits me: I am one of those parents who spends too much time on my phone. But sadly, I’m not alone.
What Kids Say About Parents’ Cell Phone Use
According to one multi-national study, 52 percent of parents think they spend too much time on their phones. (And I’m guessing the other 48 percent probably spend too much time on their phones as well — but just haven’t realized it yet!)
But, perhaps even worse, is that over half of the children in this same study felt that their parents checked their devices too often. Their kids’ biggest complaint? They felt their parents were distracted by their devices during conversations — causing many of the children to feel unimportant.
This is powerful and alarming stuff. Unimportant!? Well, geez, I can’t have my kids thinking that!
Half the time I spend staring into my darn phone is actually related to my kids. I’m texting another parent to arrange a playdate, scouring Pinterest for healthy school lunch ideas, and yes, posting adorable photos of my offspring on social media.
But who needs any of it if my kids feel like they come in second place to a silly device? They can eat sandwiches for lunch every day, and if I don’t post back-to-school pics on Instagram they will never know and it will be just fine. The number of comments and likes doesn’t mean squat if the subject of the photo feels unimportant.
These findings, coupled with my own mom guilt, were enough to make me want to put down my phone — and see how the change could affect me and my family. If giving up time on my device could give me a new perspective AND help my kids, I was willing to try it.
How I Took A Weeklong Tech Break
So, to hold myself truly accountable I downloaded an app called Moment, which not only tracks phone usage but allows users to set up certain times when using the phone is simply “not allowed.” And, trust me, this app works.
I started to see it as a game and each day I’d try to be on my phone less and less. During “no phone time” the alarm that sounds — if you even try to pick up the phone — is so obnoxious and relentless it will break you.
Armed with the right tool and the right attitude, I thought, “How hard can this be?” I didn’t really consider myself a cell phone dependent person anyway. But, as we’ve noted, self-assessment isn’t always reliable and my time with extremely limited phone use taught me a lot about myself. Namely, I am a weak and flawed individual.
It became painfully clear that I rely on my phone for many, many things: recipes and directions and making plans and work emails and buying groceries and booking plane tickets and a cure-all for awkward social situations and boredom. Stripped of this instant access to information and entertainment, I struggled.
I sat in waiting rooms for various appointments staring at other people on their devices — willing them to talk to me. No one did. I’m sure they thought I was creepy. “Where is her phone?!” “Why is she smiling at me?” I had to fight through that boredom and my urge to be habitually occupied.
The Upside Of Putting Down My Phone
But a week without my phone taught me good lessons, too — one being that it’s still OK to wonder.
Remember back in the day when we asked questions and had to be OK with not knowing the answer? If curiosity overcame us we had to find an expert or go to the library. There was no tiny computer in the palm of our hands with the great and powerful Google to feed our need for immediate answers.
So, a week without my smartphone gave me and my kids plenty of time to wonder. How do cicadas get out of their shells? How old is Taylor Swift? When does the new Christopher Robin movie come out? We just don’t know.
A week away from Instagram, and I figured out that all of those fashion bloggers I follow make me feel cranky and poor. Without the constant barrage of photos from the Nordstrom anniversary sale, I didn’t even think about all the shoes I couldn’t buy.
And don’t get me started on the amount of time I waste mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Without it, I read two whole books, actual books that I got from the actual library!
I also realized I don’t have to respond the instant I receive a text. And yet, that is exactly how I felt prior to this little experiment. Old me would be racked with guilt if texts went unanswered, and I’d fire off my apologies: “Oh my gosh, I’m soooooo sorry I’m just now getting back to you!! Still LYG.”
But for real, this little experiment taught me I don’t have to be Johnny on the spot, and I don’t have to apologize for not responding because I was eating ice cream with my kids. The world keeps spinning. Answers will come … eventually … or not, and everyone is fine.
Trust me — if someone is hurt, in trouble at school or dead, you will be called. Texting or Facebook messaging is no way to alert someone of tragedy or emergency. (Just imagine receiving a text like this: “Hey girl, your kid fell off the monkey bars and may need surgery #yolo.”) You guys, this just isn’t happening and those devices that are basically superglued to our hands still work for their original purpose: good old-fashioned phone calls.
Without the distraction of my phone, I felt I spent more purposeful time with my kids. We were able to cure summer boredom together, rather than retreat to our own solo activities. For four whole days, we worked on building a Lego zoo from scratch. We did a 1,000-piece puzzle. We made cookies using a recipe from a book.
How My Kids Reacted To My Experiment
My kids were well aware of my no-phone experiment. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. They are the only thing better than the Moment app at keeping me accountable. If I so much as answered a phone call from grandma they called me out. “Ooooo, you’re on your phone!!!” Sure, they were pointing and judging, but they were also happy to be part of my team. Excited to hold mommy to a promise.
Whenever kids can be the center of attention (or maybe this is just mine?), they love it. Giving them the benefit of my full, undistracted self, I saw the light in their eyes shine bright. They look up to me so much. I owe them the time and focus to look up from my phone at them and make real eye contact. They knew during this experiment that no matter who texted or messaged me, I would ignore it. Ultimately, my phone-free commitment was a promise to them that nothing is more important than being in that moment with the people I love most in this world.
Distracted Parenting Isn’t A New Thing
But giving up my cell phone for a week wasn’t a magic bullet to cure distracted parenting. No, I found other ways to do that just fine.
“Mom, can you play with us?”
“Not now, I have to … do the laundry, clean my closet, read my book, check my email (on my computer), make dinner, write … ”
Distracted parenting isn’t a totally new phenomenon. I remember when my own mom would stretch that long phone cord into another room away from our noise to talk in her super nice (never-used on us) voice to her mother and friends. Don’t you?
Why Parents’ Cell Phone Use May Be Uniquely Damaging For Kids
I do think parents need an outlet and we can’t be circus monkeys made to entertain our kids 24/7. But research shows these little handheld distractions may be especially damaging for our kids. Unlike other distractions, there is something inherently self-centered about cell phone use.
Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair wrote a book about this very topic after interviewing 1,000 kids ages 4 to 18. In “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships In The Digital Age,” she concludes that children feel “sad, mad, angry and lonely” when parents prioritize technology.
“We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them,” Steiner-Adair told NPR, ”
Holy smokes! Well, that’s not what we mean to do. I believe it is important to self-regulate and take a look at what exactly we are doing and why? Taking selfies on Instagram. Candy Crushing with complete strangers. Posting perfect family photos with cute quippy captions on Facebook. Texting, Snapping, Tweeting, Pinning, swiping left, swiping right, buying, selling, trading. It really can be too much.
I’m not saying we need to give it all up. In fact, full disclosure: As I write this piece about technology use and its damning effect on our kids, Netflix is in the next room babysitting my own children. So you see, this marriage between technology and life is a work in progress. And goodness knows I need my phone. How would I get anywhere without Google Maps and what would I listen to without Apple Music?
During my weeklong technology break, cooking was harder, memories went uncaptured without my camera and more than once I missed out on plans with friends. There are plenty of good reasons to use my phone that aren’t necessarily about distraction, but about human connection.
But taking a step back to assess my smartphone’s role in my life was really good for me and my family. And I will continue to use Moment to help me put down the phone and focus on all of the special moments happening around me — the ones I may have been too distracted to notice before.