Is Your Cellphone Hurting Your Relationship With Your Child?

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Many parents are conscientious about making rules for when and how kids can use technology. But what about rules for parents?

Harvard University psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair interviewed more than 1,000 children ages 4-18 for her book, “The Big Disconnect.” Over and over, she heard kids talk about how they felt frustrated or forlorn because their parents spent too much time on their cellphones.

The same results showed up in the State of the Kid Survey, conducted by Highlights Magazine in 2014. Over half the children surveyed reported that their parents often didn’t respond to them because they were distracted by technology such as laptops, cellphones or television.

Emailing, texting or even scrolling through social media preoccupies parents in a way that can make children feel shut out, lonely and unimportant. At the same time, giving kids constant undivided attention isn’t possible or desirable. Children need to learn how to soothe and amuse themselves.

Here are a few things to consider.


Focus on safety. After years of decline, visits to pediatric emergency rooms have risen. No one can prove cellphones are responsible, but research shows that adults who use cellphones while walking, much less driving, are more likely to have accidents. For safety’s sake, parents (and other caregivers) should put away all devices when supervising kids in risky settings — changing tables, bathtubs, parking lots, city streets, swimming pools and playgrounds — where even a moment of inattention can be dangerous.

Make the most of reunions. Adair recommends putting devices on hold when family members see each other after they’ve been separated. Plan ahead so you can stop what you’re doing, and let your child know how happy you are to see him or her.

Teach (and appreciate) patience. There’s nothing wrong with asking a child to wait while an adult finishes a task. How long a child can be patient depends upon age, temperament and other stresses. Thank your child for being patient while you wrap up your chat or project.

Respect tech-free zones. Many families enjoy each other’s company more if they put technology off-limits at particular times. Mealtime and bedtime are obvious choices, but you might also set aside time for a walk after dinner or game night on the weekend. Once you decide on rules that make sense for your family, be sure you follow as well enforce them.

Monitor emotions. In one recent study conducted by the Department of Pediatrics at Boston Medical Center/Boston University Medical Center, researchers observed caregivers and children in a restaurant. Most of the adults used a cellphone during the meal, and those who were most focused on their phones responded harshly to interruptions. Some kids gave up and sat passively, but others became more disruptive in an effort to get the adult’s attention. If negative feelings are building in you or your child, it’s time to take a tech break and focus on your child. If you have to correct misbehavior, feel and show compassion for what has caused it. Notice what your child is doing right. Ask yourself what you can do to restore good feelings.

Make good use of found time. Even when life is busy, there are moments of unclaimed time. Your toddler is napping. Your teen is engrossed in homework. Use these moments to replenish — not deplete — your energies. Be selective about emails or texts you respond to on your device.

Finally, think about times in your life when you have felt treasured and loved. In all likelihood, you had another person’s full attention. Be sure your child regularly has that experience in your company. Read together. Share a snack. Take a walk. Play a game. Snuggle before bedtime. What you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that you let go of everything else so your child can feel the security and warmth of your undistracted love.


Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit to read more of her columns.