Parents: Put Down the Digital Device

How is the time you spend on your phone affecting your children?
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The harsh truth is that our incessant phone usage — be it texting, scrolling through Instagram, or reading the news — is having a negative effect on our children in many ways.

“I don’t like the phone because my parents are on their phone every day,” wrote a Louisiana second grader in response to an assignment in which her class was tasked with describing something they wished was never invented. You may have seen the story that went viral earlier this year as a cutesy interlude on the evening news that the anchors laughed off as “something parents should think about.”

The time adults spend on their phones, and the effects it has on our children is no laughing matter. The Louisiana second grader gets it. She went on to write “A phone is sometimes a really bad habit. I hate my mom’s phone, and I wish she never had one.” Even more damning? Three other students in this elementary classroom agreed with similar responses. 

The harsh truth is that our incessant phone usage — be it texting, scrolling through Instagram, or reading the news — is having a negative effect on our children in many ways.


Lack of Social Attachment

Have you ever noticed that when you smile at a baby, she smiles back, and when you frown at her, she frowns? This is something Melanie Hempe, registered nurse and founder of Families Managing Media, describes as mirror neurons, and it’s crucial to a baby’s attachment to their parents and later social interaction with others.

“The only way babies can attach is to see our face,” Hempe says. “When you’re staring at your phone and talking to them, it means nothing.”

This lack of attachment, however, isn’t just relegated to babies. It’s relevant to children of all ages.

“It’s about checking in with your children,” says Amanda Zaidman, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Constructive Parenting. “‘What are you excited about today? What are you nervous about?’ You can’t talk about these things when you’re consumed by your phone.”

Lisa Pennington, a licensed psychologist and founder of Lisa Pennington and Associates agrees.

“The more a parent is on the phone, the less attentive they are. It’s in those moments that kids will act out to get attention,” Pennington says.

What starts out as minor temper tantrums can lead to much more serious developmental issues like falling grades and withdrawal from social activities like little league and gymnastics.

What can you do? For infants, refrain from using your phone during feeding times. While that may seem like boring down time to you, your baby is looking up at you and craving your attention.

For older children, dedicate a time each day to interact one-on-one with your child. Avoid multitasking during this time. Spending time together while your distracted with errands doesn’t count. Also, make sure your phone is off during this time.


Stunted Vocabulary Development

“Studies are overwhelming that kids who hear the right amount of words do so much better when it comes to literacy and vocabulary development,” Hempe says. It’s what experts often refer to as the 30 million word gap. The gap previously was more common in impoverished communities and schools. Today, the 30-million word gap is threatening homes where too much phone time by parents is prevalent.

“Our phone in our digital words is not all bad — it helps us keep in touch with grandparents via video chats — but it’s stealing words from our kids,” Hempe says.

When you’re lost in a heated Facebook conversation about whether or not kids should sleep in their parents’ beds, are you really engaged with the question your son is asking you? Conversation is more than passive listening and distracted responses. It’s tone, annunciation and inflection. It’s the 30 million words our kids need to see and hear before they turn 4.

What can you do? Be present with your children. Set the phone down and kneel to their level when they have a question for you. Spend a half-hour each day technology free reading with books. If too much “Goodnight Moon” becomes maddening (guilty as charged), read to them from one of your magazines. Inspire awe with a travel or sports magazine.


Negative Mirroring

The old phrase “do as I say, not as I do” didn’t work when our parents said it to us. Why, then, do we think it will work when we say it to our children?

“We’re worried about kids and too much time on screens, but we expose them to a lot from our own behavior,” Pennington says. 

Seeing us constantly checking our phone only tells our kids it’s OK for them to do the same. The dangers of kids being in front of screens too much has been the topic of entire books, yet, two perils stick out. The first is that our screen time directly leads to our children’s inability to cognitively process in the real world. The danger here is that children don’t have to be brave when screens make things easy. Why breakup with your girlfriend in person when it’s easier to do it over text? Think of the ramifications that this default could have on marriages and interactions with co-workers.

Our constant use of phones also teaches children that it is not OK to be bored. “Boredom is really important for kids as it lets their brains re-boot,” Zaidman says. “When we’re bored, that’s when creativity flourishes. If our brain is always working, it isn’t being creative.”

Think of your own mental exhaustion from the dopamine hit you receive from each task you complete, email you reply to or social media interaction you respond to.

What can you do? Create phone free times and zones in the house. For example, don’t allow the use of phones by you or your children at the family table or after the work day is done. Also, create phone charging stations outside of the bedroom to avoid getting lost in email or social media before you go to bed or first thing in the morning when you wake up.


Unnecessary Stress and Anxiety

“There are parents that don’t think twice about having the news on in the background all the time,” Pennington says. “Kids are fearful of things they wouldn’t typically be exposed to. I had kids come into my office that were tearful and afraid after the election because there was so much backlash in the media. In a child’s day-to-day life, they shouldn’t have this much fear.”

These messages don’t just come from TV, they also come from the news feed on your phone. Take out your smartphone right now and swipe right. What headlines do you read? Are any of them positive? When you read these articles, how do they made you feel? Like in the modeling example above, what are your children learning from your reaction? 

“Even something as simple as notifications from a weather app causes anxiety in kids,” Pennington says, as she relates taking a beach vacation with her family while Hurricane Chris flirted with the coast of North Carolina. Those notifications lead to turning on the TV, which only instills more worry.

What can you do? Reduce your news intake around your family. Turn off the morning or evening news when the family sits down to eat. Silence news notifications on your phone. Remove news topics that can serve as trigger points from your phone’s news feed. 

“Time that we spend with our kids is precious,” Zaidman says. “It’s that shortest-longest time conundrum. That hour may feel boring with our long list of “do’s,” but time is short, and it’s easy to look back with regret. Spend time cuddling instead of looking at your phone to find out what’s next on your schedule.”

Bryan M. Richards is a beer, food and travel writer who has happily added parenting to his family credentials. His work has appeared in Men’s Journal, Beer Advocate and just about anything with the word Charlotte in it. He’s still struggling to balance his own phone usage with parenting a toddler.