Can Parents Buck the Cell Phone Guilt?

by ParentCo. July 17, 2017

happy dad and his child playing outdoors

At the end of the long day with my kids, I’m as drained as my cell phone battery. Both of us are begging to be recharged and for no one to need us or touch us for at least the next hour. Please.

I’ll be the first to admit that I reach for my cell phone frequently when I’m around my kids. If they’re munching happily on chicken nuggets, taking a while on the potty, or running around the backyard, I can’t resist taking a few minutes to check on the world outside my home. While I love staying at home with my children, I can’t stand the isolation. In my pocket is a portal to connection – relationships, news, current events, and excitement. I can reconnect with a friend whom I haven’t seen since graduation, or read the latest breaking news anytime I want.

There are piles of research telling me I should feel guilty about how this habit is affecting my kids. Children frequently felt secondary to their parents’ device, according to one study. Over half of the children surveyed felt that their parents checked their phones too often, with nearly a third saying their parents have been distracted during a conversation with their children.

From a child’s perspective, this is awful. From a parent’s perspective, I know what it’s like to try to listen to a 10 minute joke that has no punch line when you just really need to see if that text was your friend cancelling your play date that afternoon.

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However, a third of the children surveyed said that a parent checking their phone in the middle of a conversation made them feel unimportant – something I never want my children to feel. Even if (let’s face it) the conversation is typically unimportant.

When parents turn to our cell phones, it’s often for something necessary – scheduling a pediatrician appointment, checking work emails, or researching what that best treatment for diaper rash is. 50 years ago, children probably felt like their moms spent too much time flipping through cookbooks and their dads with their noses behind a newspaper. It's impossible to give our children our undivided attention throughout the day.

It's also probably not good for them, either. Independence is an important virtue to develop in children, experts remind us. Children need opportunities to explore the world on their own in order to develop confidence and capability. Perhaps I don’t need to feel guilty about spending 15 minutes looking for that night’s dinner recipe on Pinterest while my children wander off and go play with their blocks.

That being said, not all of my cell phone use is productive. Too often it turns into a form of escapism when I'm exhausted and need some time off from parenting, yet I’ve found that scrolling through my Facebook feed that's full of childless friends vacationing around the world never makes me feel any better.

In fact, use of numerous social media platforms is linked to depression according to a recent study. Users with higher numbers of social media accounts (seven to 11) may be at a greater risk of depression due to the constant multitasking, as well as the rumination which can lead users to think of themselves in a negative light.

It’s not surprising then that parents are more irritable when on their phones. Our children don’t know if we're firing off an important work email that will only take a minute, or ignoring them because we would rather be on a beach in Hawaii like that girl from high school we never really liked in the first place. We become frustrated because we either need to do something actually important, or because our three minutes of escapism into a Buzzfeed article about nostalgic 90s TV shows was interrupted.

So how can parents find a balance between using phones when they are helpful and necessary, and avoid the negative outcomes they bring? Here a few a few simple tips that can help create a happy medium.

1 | Create phone free zones

There are times and places when cell phone use is acceptable, and times when it is outright dangerous. Checking smartphones and texting while driving should be number one on your list of places to put the phone away. Poolside is another good place to leave the phone tucked away in your bag.

Dinner time should also be a sacrosanct half hour where phones remain dark. Full disclosure: we will frequently pull ours out during dinners to FaceTime far away family members, but that encourages interaction between our children and others, rather than discourage it.

2 | Tell your kid what you're doing

When my son is stomping his feet because I'm ignoring him, I try to give him a reason why. “I just need to finish e-mailing Papa about what dates we are going to come visit,” I’ll tell him.

It rarely appeases his frustration, but it does give me accountability. I’m less likely to switch over to Twitter after hitting “send” and more likely to put the phone down and give him my full attention.

3 | Get out and about

I’ve noticed that I rarely check my phone when I am out with friends, it’s the days that we spend alone in the house all day that I find myself lighting up the screen far more than necessary. If you're frequently turning to your phone for a sense of connection, remember that any comfort your device offers pales in comparison to the real thing.

For me, being a stay-at-home parent can be lonely and frustrating at times, but connecting with other parents on play dates, park trips, or at the library can greatly alleviate some of the boredom that sends us diving into our social media feeds.

4 | Take a real break

If it’s been a long day and you find yourself reaching for your phone more than usual, it might be a sign that you need some time off from the rigors of parenting. Grumpy and overwrought parents aren’t capable of providing their children with quality time. Find a way to take some time for yourself to recharge. It’s best if you find something to do that doesn’t involve a phone: take a walk, read a book, or grab a drink with friends after the kids go down to bed.

5 | Go old-fashioned

Sure, Pinterest has every recipe you can imagine, but so do classics like "The Joy of Cooking," and your kids will have way more fun helping you pick out dinner flipping through cookbooks than trying to pry your face away from the screen.

6 | Get moving

It’s harder to read your phone while you're walking. If Saturday mornings have turned into Toons-and-Twitter time for your family, consider unplugging and going for a family hike instead. Getting out of cell phone range is the easiest way to insure you aren’t overusing it.

7 | Stop scrolling

When you’ve completed whatever task that sent you to your phone in the first place – checking the weather or sending a text – and you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through headlines and status updates, it’s time to put the phone down. Nothing good comes of knowing which cat videos your great aunt likes.

Cell phones certainly are a distraction from parenting, and I don’t blame any parent who needs that distraction from time to time. On the whole, I believe my cell phone has been good for my parenting. I can text my husband updates about our kid’s runny nose or send grandparents pictures and videos of my kids singing happy birthday to their aunts and uncles. When our phones foster connection, they're wonderful. It’s when they start impeding it that we need to step back and take a break.



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