Shocked by my daughter’s accusation, I conducted a small study and used the results to create better digital practices for my family
I spent every weekday afternoon for the last three weeks in the neighborhood park. As a mother with young children, I blended in well. My primary goal, however, was not to watch my children play on the playground. It was to watch other parents interact with their children.
This was far from a scientific study, but I learned a heck of a lot.
If you are a parent and you know other parents, the topic of children and screen time will come up. It’s both universal and inevitable.
In the past, when this topic came up, I had always felt pretty smug. I don’t think I bragged, but let’s just say that I wasn’t shy to share. I was invested in this topic. I had done my research so I was pretty sure I’d ace all the talking points that they’d cover.
- My kids (ages 1–9) do not have their own personal devices.✔
- They mostly watch educational (PBS kids) shows. ✔
- No screen time on school nights. ✔
- An hour of screen time on the weekends. (In total. I know. Very proud of this one.) ✔
- My kids have access to only one device. It is a desktop in our living area. They take turns or share. ✔✔✔
Sounds impressive, right?
Or not. Maybe you’re rolling your eyes.
Either way, it probably does not sound like these children are at any major risk of too much screen time.
Nothing could be further from the truth though.
They are at risk of too much screen time. My screen time.
Unchecked parental distraction can be toxic for children. So while I thought I was doing everything right, my children were breathing in secondhand smoke. And it took a deeply sobering moment to startle me from my own complacency.
Last weekend, I was getting my kids ready for an outing. I picked up my iPhone to check the weather. When getting four kids from Point A to Point B, an extra 30-second trip to open the front door can feel ambitious. Or pointless.
I don’t remember the particulars of the notification that triggered my attention, but ten minutes later, I was still holding my phone, my six-year-old daughter was yelling something to me, and I probably couldn’t tell you what the weather was.
She was terrified that her seven-month-old baby sister was choking. In the numbing rabbit hole that is Instagram, it took her a few tries to get my attention. When she did, I quickly dropped the phone and saw that there was in fact a reason for her concern. The baby was coughing after attempting to eat a small piece of paper on the floor. It wasn’t a choking hazard.
Luckily all was well. The baby was fine, but my daughter wasn’t. The effort of getting my attention left her overwrought. And next, came the question in a small voice, with no irony.
“Mommy, what’s more important? Your phone or someone’s life?”
From anyone else, this would be a melodramatic and obviously rhetorical question. But she was actually waiting for an answer. She sincerely wanted to know. And what struck me most about this experience was that at that very moment in time, the real answer was not obvious to her at all.
Because young children take us at face value. And the only way to interpret my actions at face value is how they appear. When I’m ignoring her in favor of a screen, the screen is more important than her. Than her baby brother, choking. Even if it isn’t, it is.
In projecting all of my past education outward (namely, on my children) and none of it inward (on myself), I conveniently sidestepped a major pitfall of technology-distracted parenting.
The issue is not just how we raise our children in a technology-driven world.
The issue is also how we parent in a technology-driven world.
Centering the conversation around parental screen time does not take away from the essentiality of addressing children’s screen time. The research on that is undeniable and sobering. It is simply shining a light on the other side of the equation.
On our personal habits and accountability. Does this conversation make us more uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. And that’s exactly why we must have it.
There’s another conversation shift that needs to take place. Away from shame and judgment and toward practical and helpful solutions.
If you Google distracted parenting, it will tell you all the things that can go wrong. How it interferes with early development, poses a physical danger, and negatively impacts your child’s sense of worth, relationship to technology, and yourself. All true. Now try Googling “attentive parenting.”
It will tell you all of the above again. It might be more palatable, with an emphasis on the importance of attentiveness. But the actual beef of the message is pretty similar. It highlights what can go wrong. There’s very little practical information on how to do it right. The operative word in that sentence being practical.
I did see a lot of fluff pieces that read like New Year’s resolution lists… Inspiring but not sustainable. I still needed real advice, and I couldn’t find it. Predictably, I was hellbent on discovering it.
You’re welcome in advance.
So I hit the park bench. To observe interactions and have candid conversations.
For two weeks I simply recorded data about the population and their device usage. I also made casual observations about the parent/child interactions that I observed.
After gathering that data, I conducted an informal survey. I prepared a short set of questions that sparked incredible conversations.
The moms did not disappoint. At the end of these three weeks, I learned invaluable insight into the true art of attentive parenting.
The kicker — there is a way to use your phone around your kids that will naturally inhibit distraction on your part and frustration on theirs.
I sat on a park bench near a local private school for two hours every school day for three consecutive weeks. I chose this park because it was small. The benches are very close to the playground. There are usually only about 5–10 families there on average so it wasn’t too difficult to record interactions. There was an assortment of repeat families which was helpful to me.
How many caregiver/s and child/ren units were at the park each day.
- Typically between 5–10.
- It was once as little as one family and once as many as 14.
How long each unit spent at the park.
- Short visit (20%) 30 min-1 hour.
- Medium visit (50%) 1–1.5 hours.
- Long visit (30%) 1.5–2 hours.
I did not keep track of families who stayed less than a half-hour.
Results are an average of over 15 afternoons to the nearest 10 percent.
Device usage of each caregiver
- Maximal Use: (10%) Phone usage for the bulk of their park stay.
- Moderate Use: (70%) Occasional scrolling, with interim breaks.
- Minimal use: (20%) Checked occasional alerts.
- No use: (3 caregivers overall, but they each stayed less than a half-hour.)
Results are an average of over 15 afternoons to the nearest 10 percent.
For repeat caregivers, I used quick averages.
- So let’s say we have “Mom X” who came to the park twice.
- One ‘2-hour’ stay with minimal use.
- One ‘1-hour’ stay with maximal use.
- Total of 3 hours and was put in the moderate use category.
Calm down, don’t hate just yet. I know this is not an actual study. I am well aware that “bulk” and “occasional” are not scientific quantities. The numbers and averages are to give context, not an attempt at any professional standard. But, I will say this:
I’m a mom and freelance writer. I am also a practicing pediatric occupational therapist. I have taken countless parenting workshops and professional development in-services. And I’ve learned a thing or two along the way.
And as far as practical advice goes? I learn the most real stuff from fellow moms. If that resonates, continue reading.
Most of my observations were not groundbreaking. They simply affirmed my own intuition.
- Children often need to make several attempts to get the attention of an adult using a device.
- The children become increasingly frustrated. The adults often respond by chastising the child for whining, lack of patience, consideration, etc.
- Children have an easier time getting the adult’s attention when the adult is talking to another physical person.
- Adults typically respond with less frustration during those interruptions than the digital ones. (It should be noted that this is not necessarily due to the nature of the engagement. It can also be attributed to an onlooker noting his/her response.)
- The adults who use their devices sparingly in the park are much more apt to push a child on a swing or engage with them on the playground.
- The adults who used devices heavily typically sat on the bench for the majority of their visits.
These questions were asked a total of 40 times to 32 mothers, 5 caregivers, and 3 fathers. Responses were estimated to the nearest 5 percent.
- Who has more screen time? You or your child?
(Pretty much a 50/50 response on this one)
2. Do you feel that your children are negatively impacted by your technology use?
(70% yes, 30% no)
3. Have you actively tried to curb your technology use when you are with your family?
(75% yes, 25% no)
4. If yes, what works for you?
(See below — popular answers included accountability from spouse and older children, transparency in communication, and select time management apps)
5. What does not?
(Guilt, unreasonable goals, creating ironclad rules)
What we all agreed on
Throughout their day, children see us prioritizing something else. They often have no idea what that “something else” even is. They simply see you zoned into a screen in your hand. This makes them try harder to get your attention, eventually leaving them feeling ignored and frustrated.
Establishing routines in any goal area is proven to work. Adding in accountability increases the odds of success. This is why many of the parents I spoke to did their homework and implemented changes. Many were left disappointed by “expert” advice and guilty with their inability to stick to it.
It might seem like well-meaning advice to suggest that new moms put away their phones when breast/bottle feeding. It even has a catchy name, “brexting” and apparently it’s bad for bonding.
Let’s get real. Newborns eat non-stop, usually while sleeping. In my own experience, these feedings were often the only times when I was able to catch my breath (and take a social media break if I wanted to).
Also, let’s remember. We’re talking about moms. They can…(drumroll)… multitask. They can text and bond with their babies at the same time, simply by providing warmth, touch, and familiar smell. Guilting them for this practice is kind of ridiculous.
There is another popular suggestion that real parents don’t know what to make of:
“Live in the moment. Put your phone away on family outings, vacations, trips…”
But how are we getting there without WAZE?
Or an UBER?
How will we know where to eat without YELP?
And more importantly, this is not 2005. I don’t have a Canon in my fanny pack. How am I taking pictures? The pictures? The pictures!? You feel me?
So what actually works?
1. No tech at family mealtimes
What it looks like: Have a designated tech box in your family dining area. (It can be the bread box or an old vase.)
- Make yourself accountable by telling your kids about it. This is where they shine. Trust me, they’ll remind you.
How it’s going:
We’re three months into this and it’s been really hard to stay consistent, but it’s also been well worth it. The quality of our family mealtimes has changed for the better. We don’t have family dinner every night, mostly on the weekends and occasionally when our schedules align.
It took some time for us to find a new rhythm. In the beginning, we were hyper-aware of the atmosphere we were trying to create, and we overwhelmed our children with attention and questions. That didn’t quite work out, and we learned to ease up and simply just be. To spend time together enjoying a meal with no agenda or distractions.
And once we reached that sweet spot, the atmosphere followed. Family mealtime is something my kids love and look forward to. And now they don’t stop talking and sharing. It may be chaotic but the connection is genuine.
2. When on outings, don’t share in real-time
What it looks like: Order an Uber, and compare all the venues on Yelp. Take pics and video clips that you’ll treasure… All reasonable and worthwhile.
- But DO NOT edit pics in real-time and DO NOT share pics in real-time.
- Not on WhatsApp. Not on Facebook. Not on Instagram. Not on Snapchat. Just don’t.
- And don’t leave nasty reviews (or even nice ones) while you’re partaking in said activities.
- Bottom line — delay sharing until it’s over.
How it’s going:
I found this one really hard. I struggled with not sharing pictures in real-time mostly because I’ve found myself downplaying the value of this boundary. It felt like such a small breach that I’ll admit to having crossed the line occasionally. I rationalized that no harm was done if I spent two seconds posting a pic in real-time. After all, it’s that much more thrilling to get instantaneous feedback.
Here’s the thing. It’s never two seconds. Immediately after the fact, my phone would start buzzing with the oohs and ahhs and comments. Which was the whole point, wasn’t it? And even if I somehow maintained the self-control not to respond at the moment, I’d already appropriated my mental energy. Away from the actual moment.
These lapses have fueled my resolve to do better. When I’m successful at being fully in the moment, we all benefit. My kids enjoy my undivided attention, and I don’t feel guilty for dividing said attention. As an added bonus I have come to truly enjoy sharing my pictures without a timeclock. We all win.
3. Get the data, use an app
- Commit to reading your phone analytics of app usage once weekly with your partner. There’s nothing like hearing the numbers to curb your habits.
- Identify your “distraction” trigger apps.
- Identify your most susceptible routine times (morning routine, bedtime routine).
- Choose an app that will disable the trigger apps during those daily routines.
- Stick with it. Even when it gets hard.
How it’s going:
For me, nothing has fueled my own drive for change more than reading the numbers of my usage. I had tried this in the past, but it was both overwhelming and uncomfortable. The kicker here was doing this together with my husband. That was a game-changer. I can’t say that we do it once a week religiously, but it’s kind of developed into a natural routine. We each struggle with different aspects of our commitments, but this helps us stay strong and support each other.
Using an app blocker is an amazing tool, but ultimately you’re in control. It only works if you want it to. I needed to get to that point first. Now that I’m there, I never want to go back.
4. Narrate what you are doing: this is the real secret
Get into the habit of talking out loud when you are using your smartphone in front of your children. It will feel awkward at first, but there are good reasons to narrate your actions.
- It is the most intuitive filter: If they need you, and you can’t narrate why you’re unavailable, probably best to save it for later.
- “I’m just going to check the weather to see if it’ll rain while we’re out.” Sounds right? Check.
- “One sec, let me look up the library’s hours.” Check.
- “Give me a moment, while I enter the address into the Google Maps.” Check.
- “Can’t come now, I’m watching someone apply sunscreen on Instagram.” Nope.
- “Hang on, this nice lady is on a really funny rant about how she hates her husband.” That’s a no. Save it for later.
2. Your distraction is much less frustrating for children when they can visualize what you’re doing. This does not mean that all your phone usage needs to somehow benefit your family. It’s just easier to be ignored when you know why.
Put yourself in your kid’s shoes…
- You to your spouse: “You won’t believe what happened to me today…”
- Spouse: (as he stares and scrolls with his phone) “uh-huh..”
Relatable, but sucks. OR:
- You to your spouse: “You won’t believe what happened to me today…”
- Spouse: (as he stares and scrolls with his phone) “Give me one minute to finish responding to…”
Doesn’t make your heart sing, but definitely less frustrating.
How it’s going:
My family’s experience in the last few months has upheld this premise. When narrating your tech use consistently, you are both pre-empting the problem and softening the fallout. My children responded positively to this approach from the get-go.
Here’s the caveat. It was a big learning curve for me.
It takes time to develop this habit. In the beginning, you’ll feel like it’s counterintuitive. You’ll be spending more time narrating the distraction when you could instead do it swiftly and be done with the distraction. Do. It. Anyways.
When I found myself cutting corners, I encouraged my children to ask me what I’m doing on my phone. Converting them into accomplices has only eased this journey. I have learned to integrate a natural usage filter. My children have learned to exercise discernment instead of defaulting to frustration. The more they are privy to, the more insight they have.
This right here is why modern parents get a bad rap for distraction. Parents throughout the ages were busy with things other than their children. And I’m not just referring to the heavy stuff like war, famine, and drought.
Were the 1980s dads more attentive parents as they watched the football game from an old-style TV set? Or the schmoozing moms who stretched the cord of the wall phone into the pantry just to escape the chaos? Something tells me not.
There’s the obvious comeback that those devices didn’t live in their pockets and travel with them everywhere. That’s a major point. But with that in mind, we can’t underplay how vital it was that children knew what those parents were doing.
Depending on the scenario, the fact that their parents were occasionally prioritizing something over them was either an unpleasant reality or an example of balanced living. Our distraction is different. It is a constant presence in our children’s lives, but the specific hold is often a complete mystery to them. Naturally, it leaves them feeling unvalued and resentful. That feeling is toxic.
To draw on an earlier comparison, in 1964, the surgeon general administered the first health warning against direct smoking risks in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1972, eight years later, that the concept of secondhand smoke was introduced to the nation. Today it’s an accepted medical reality. Research has shown that 41,000 people die from secondhand smoke every year in the U.S. However, it took decades of research, discovery, and activism to affect change.
Can we afford to wait that long?