Ask Parenting: I Use My Phone for Everything. Is That Harming My Kids?

Modeling healthy digital habits has become more and more challenging as our smartphones become intertwined with nearly every aspect of our lives.

Credit...Nicole Ruggiero

This story was originally published on Sept. 19, 2019 on NYT Parenting.

In my household, my husband and I use our iPhones for everything: reading the newspapers, reading books, finding and cooking from recipes, listening to music, chatting with family members and taking and looking at pictures. As the mom of a 2.5-year-old, I am often angry at “experts” who want me to limit my “screen time” in front of my kid. How is reading a recipe from a cookbook, reading the paper from a physical copy, listening to music via a CD player or answering a corded phone better? Should we go back to being Luddites? What is the answer?

Muna Shikaki of Washington, D.C.

We loved this question for many reasons.

First, while there’s a lot of guidance about how often children should use digital technology and which types of technology are best, technology use among parents is still an emerging field of research. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has a policy statement about media and young minds. But there’s no comparable advice for parents on managing our own phone use in front of our kids.

Second, as on-demand technology has become intertwined with nearly every aspect of our lives, many parents — myself included — find ourselves using our devices even more often than we did just a few years ago.

We’ve heard the warnings about chronically distracted parenting, and often feel guilty if we glance at our phones instead of hanging on our toddler’s every word. But avoiding our devices altogether seems unrealistic.

In my family, our phones are used for everything Ms. Shikaki mentioned and more, including buying toilet paper in bulk, checking the weather and depositing checks — mine also functions as our new TV remote after our 2-year-old accidentally broke the original. So how do we create boundaries with our smartphones? Is it even possible to set limits?

Parents have always had distractions. But the temptation offered by a smartphone — where anything you need or want is immediately accessible — can be very different, experts say. We know we shouldn’t look at our phones so much, but we can’t turn away.

That’s by design, said Brandon McDaniel, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Parkview Research Center in Fort Wayne, Ind., who studies digital disruptions, or “technoference,” and the ways in which technology affects families and children.

“When in the course of human history have we had a device as powerful as this that has been in our pocket or in our hand at every single moment of our waking lives?” he asked.

It’s crucial to realize that we use our phones a lot more than we think we do, Dr. McDaniel said. Americans check their phones an average of 52 times a day according to one study. Another study, which surveyed more than 2,300 parents of children age 8 and younger, found that parents use their smartphones an average of 1 hour and 34 minutes per day while they’re at home (and that doesn’t include time spent talking or texting).

“If we don’t become mindful of our use while we’re around our very young children — our infants and our toddlers and our preschoolers — then that’s very problematic because they rely on us so much to learn how relationships work, to feel cared for, to have their needs met,” Dr. McDaniel said.

There are no blanket rules to follow: It might take some trial and error, and it’s up to each family to figure out what works best. But here are a few techniques that may help you become more thoughtful and intentional about how you use your phone when you’re with your children.

[If you have a question about how technology affects kids, please submit it here.]

When we tap and scroll on our screens, children can no longer see and hear what we’re doing: Context disappears, we gaze downward and our expressions go blank.

Sometimes that’s O.K.

Children don’t need to know everything, and obviously parents need to have private moments both online and offline. The difficulty comes when children start to feel shut out — as though the screen often takes precedence over their needs.

Taking a bit of time to explain what you’re doing on your phone can help children understand why you’re distracted while also demonstrating that digital devices can be used in the context of relationships and problem solving.

Here’s how it might work: Imagine a hypothetical situation where you just picked up your child from day care and your partner texts to ask if you’ll pick up dinner on the way home.

“You can say to your child, ‘Oh, Daddy asked us to stop at the supermarket and buy a chicken, let’s write him back and tell him that we’ll get a chicken for him.’ And you can actually show the screen — just like with a storybook you can point at the words,” said Rebecca Parlakian, the senior director of parenting programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit research and training organization for early childhood development in Washington, D.C.

“The more that we point out text in our child’s life,” she added, “the more that they learn the symbolic nature of the words that they see in the world around them.”

A 2018 study co-authored by Dr. McDaniel found that the more stressed out parents were, the more often digital disruptions happened. They also found that these disruptions can displace opportunities for parent-child connection that are important to child health and development.

But sometimes you just need to pay a bill, text your friends or order some more toilet paper, without turning it into a teachable moment.

Sometimes you need to unwind with a funny video: Raising young children can be tedious and exhausting.

“It’s not helpful to say parents are to blame and to add more guilt onto them,” Dr. McDaniel said. “Although, we should realize that parents ultimately do have more power in the parent-child relationship and so should be responsible.”

If you need (or want) to use your phone for an extended period of time, set aside a block of time where you can focus uninterrupted, perhaps while your child is napping, or at the end of the day.

“I think what’s so hard about devices is they’re ever-present and so it really takes some discipline on the part of the adult to be able to think ‘What do I have to do on my phone? When can I find the least intrusive time to do that?’” said Roberta Schomburg, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media.

Each of the experts I spoke with emphasized the importance of setting aside time to be fully present with your child, without interference from a device. By designating technology-free zones in your home or technology-free periods during the day, Dr. McDaniel said, families can create more opportunities for meaningful interaction.

Some parents might choose to put away their phones the moment they come home from work and pick them up again after their children go to sleep. Others might make a rule to never bring a phone into their child’s bedroom.

“You’re going to have to try and try and try again to figure out what works and does not work” in order to maximize the quality of the time that you spend with your children, Dr. McDaniel said, adding that some parents may need more access to their devices than others.

[What you can do if your child is a digital addict.]

Spend some time thinking about when and why you’re turning to your phone. Phone use can become dysfunctional if you’re continually using your phone to escape from the inevitable boredom and stressors that can accompany parenthood. If that sounds familiar, “try to think of what would be a better way to do this right now where I’m not just withdrawing into my phone,” Dr. McDaniel said.

Studies show that frequent technoference can affect how sensitive and responsive we are to our children. By focusing on our phones we may miss some of our child’s cues, Dr. McDaniel said, prompting our children to act out and our stress levels to increase in what can become a tough-to-break cycle.

When possible, try to use your phone jointly with your children, Dr. Schomburg suggested. For example, you can both FaceTime with Grandma or scroll through family photos.

“It helps them learn that this is something that we can use in a social situation with people we care about, and it doesn’t have to be something you do alone, staring at your screen,” she said. “Because I think so many children are getting that message.”

Christina Caron is a parenting reporter at The New York Times.