Is Your Tech Addiction Destroying Your Relationship With Your Kids?
A Psychologist Explains When To Log Off And Tune In
My mom loves to read the newspaper, so much so that it was often hard for her to put it down when I was a child, even when I was talking to her. I knew she loved me, I knew she could multi-task, and yet her damn newspaper prevented me from having the undivided attention I desperately wanted and needed. Now I’m a mother of three, and, sadly, history is repeating itself, only instead of a newspaper it is a smart phone. “I just need to send one quick text about a play date,” I rationalize, though inevitably my thumbs keep tapping a bit longer, the addictive staccato rhythm lulling me into a trance that successfully muffles their screams of “Mommy! Mommy!”
I’m ashamed of my behavior, but I’m not alone. Distracted parenting in the digital age has become an epidemic—and it’s taking a toll on our kids, according to Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. “Children whose parents are glued to their phones tell me they are sad, mad, angry, frustrated and lonely,” she says. “Kids feel invisible, isolated and exhausted from trying to get their parents’ attention.”
Benign as it may seem, your Facebook habit can have negative social and emotional consequences for your kids. A new study published in the journal Child Development found that parents who constantly check their phones are more likely to have kids who misbehave. Researchers examined 170 families with young children and found mothers and fathers who were more likely to report being distracted by technology during playtime were also more likely to see behavior problems in their kids. Even relatively low levels of interruptions – such as checking texts while talking to children – were associated with greater behavioral problems, such as hypersensitivity, temper tantrums, hyperactivity and whining.
In her book, Dr. Steiner-Adair offers a practical solution. Just as we create rules governing screen time for our kids, we need to put limits on how—and when—we use our own use of devices in the presence of our kids. Steiner-Adair, who has interviewed thousands of families about the challenges of parenting in the digital age, suggests unplugging at the following critical points in the day:
1) First thing in the morning
Getting ready for school and work is challenging enough without adding another distraction. “The kids are asking us really good questions in the morning, like ‘Who’s picking me up today?’ or ‘Is there soccer after school?’ That’s when they need nice Mommy who’s calming and helpful, not distracted, curt Mommy who’s annoyed because she’s being interrupted while she reads emails,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. Can’t bear to miss your early morning Insta scroll? Set your alarm a half hour earlier so you can enjoy your catch up solo before the morning chaos begins.
2) When you take kids to school
The walk or drive to school is when children of all ages mentally prepare for the day ahead. “It’s a wonderful time to get a sense of what’s going on in our kids’ growing minds and what they’re looking forward to that day, but we miss it entirely when we’re on the phone texting or talking,” explains Dr. Steiner-Adair. “It’s very stressful for them when you’re on a call or talking to someone else while all kinds of thoughts swirl in their heads. Not only do they need you to be present, but they also need to feel like you want to be with them.” To avoid the temptation of checking your phone, she suggests setting up an auto-reply message along the lines of “I’m just taking the kids to school and will be back online shortly.” Or better yet, simply put your phone into airplane mode as soon as your kids wake up.
3) When they come home from school or when you come home from work
“We get so little time with our kids – why would you squander this precious moment of reconnection?” asks Dr. Steiner-Adair. “It was so poignant to hear kids tell me they can’t hug their mom or dad when they walk in because they always say, ‘Hold on, this is really important,’ while clinging to their phone. It doesn’t matter if they’re 6, 16, or 26 – kids need to feel like they matter to us and they want our undivided attention, especially when we reconnect.” Finish up outside and walk in screen-free – even if it means standing out in the rain or around the corner in a coffee shop.
These same rules apply when kids come home from college—and even when grown adults return to visit. “Kids in their 20s tell me about being picked up from the airport, and just when they’re about to open up about a new boyfriend or job, a parent takes a call. The youngsters are furious, hurt, and insulted—rightfully so,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “The kids ask, often while dropping F-bombs because they’re so outraged, ‘If they really cared about me, why would they take a call to talk to my aunt or schedule golf?’”
You wouldn’t let your 9-year-old daughter watch Jessie while she’s at the dinner table, so why is it ok for you to take a text from your work colleague? The dining table should be a screen-free zone for everyone, including parents. Asking about each other’s day, helping one another solve problems—these are the kind of meaningful exchanges that bring a family together and help kids learn how to become effective, compassionate adults. “The more we can invite kids to think about problems we encounter in the adult world and let them know that we value their input, the more competent they will become as future problem solvers,” explains Dr. Steiner-Adair.
5) Bath time
We all know the dangers of leaving a young child unattended in the bath – but when the phone rings, it can be tempting to grab it. Unfortunately, all it takes is a few seconds for a baby to drown or a young kid to slip on a wet floor. “Digital distraction during bath time accounts for a recent spike in pediatric emergency room visits,” Dr. Steiner-Adair reports. Bath time is also an important bonding moment. “Of course it can be repetitive and tedious but it’s also an intimate special time to sing songs, play, or just be quiet with your child,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “Your kids want to know that you’re happy to sit and be with them without any additional entertainment.”
No matter how old children are, they want our undivided attention as they transition from the waking world into the land of nod. “Before falling asleep, they need to know that all is right in the world,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “My mother is 91, and when she says ‘Goodnight darling,’ I still get that warm, fuzzy feeling of being cherished and protected, even though we are all taking care of her now.”