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February 20, 2018

Problem parenting: When smartphones take the front seat

How the behavior of cell-phone distracted parents can have long-term negative effects on their kids

Parenting Cell Phones
Unhappy child Janko Ferlič on Unsplash/for PhillyVoice

It may be time for an honest inquiry into just how much time we spend on our devices.

"Mama, you are addicted to your phone," my 6-year-old son tells me one day a few months ago.

My internal response is initially defensiveness. I feel hurt. I'm a yoga teacher after all – skilled at leading a room full of people into deeper states of mindfulness. Me? Addicted to my phone? Not at all.

Then I feel guilty. Sh*t. There's so much to balance as a single mom, and my phone is a useful tool. From managing my bank account to setting up a pediatric dental appointment – it's an important asset. Yes, that's what I'll tell him. So, I do.

"My phone is a tool and I try to use it wisely," I respond.

My reply is met with downcast eyes. I didn't really hear him. He feels I look at my phone too much, and it distracts me. Like a thief I warmly welcome into our space, it steals my attention away. I can see he is hurt. And his hurt inspires a deeper reflection.

Yes, I'm careful with my phone. I don't turn my phone on at night when my son is with me. It isn't in my bedroom where I sleep. I never downloaded the Facebook app and my email isn't synced to it -- unless I'm traveling. I try to be mindful because I see how so many of us have attached our phones to our bodies like newly added, sci-fi-appendages transforming us into downward-gazing zombies.

I remember a conversation with friend Clair. She reflected on how it felt to return to the states after serving for three years on a Peace Corps mission right when iPhones were released.

"It was a shock to come back," she remembered. "It was like being catapulted into Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

Zombies? Body Snatchers? Perhaps these images are too extreme – or perhaps not. Consider them the next time you visit a city park. Notice how many minutes a parent can last before pulling his or her phone out of a back pocket to compulsively check whatever text, post, or article is deemed more interesting than the "Hey, look at me!" request on the slide. Consider them the next time you are at a traffic light. Look up from your phone to notice how most drivers around you have their eyes glued to a small screen only to reluctantly place the device down so as to maneuver their vehicles safely -- hopefully.

I like to think I'm different on these points. But am I? If I could step outside of my own defensiveness and clearly make note of my phone use, what would I see?

So, rather than trying to "correct" my son's point of view, I decide to connect to him. I decide to listen. 

"You think I'm addicted to my phone," I restate his observation. "Right?"

"You are!" He nods. He's engaged again.

"Tell me more," I inquire.

"You look at it too much," he states.

"How does that make you feel?" I ask.


Last month, journalist Adam Popescu invited his readers to "play a game." The next time you are with a group of people, notice how much time goes by before someone "grabs their phone to look at it." In his article, entitled: "Keep Your Head Up: How Smartphone Addiction Kills Manners and Moods," Popescu asks: "Are your friends or partner more into their smartphone than they are into you?"

And if we, collectively, are more "into" our phones than our partners and friends -- what about our children?

According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, a parent's obsessive use of screen technology inspires more than sadness. After interviewing more than 1,000 children and teens from 4 to 18 years of age, she noted that many children felt as jealous of their parents' phones as they feel when their parents give undo attention to another sibling. She describes how children, of all ages: "talked about feeling exhausted and frustrated and sad or mad trying to get their parents' attention, competing with computer screens or iPhone screens or any kind of technology, much like in therapy you hear kids talk about sibling rivalry."

Let that sink in. Are we as attached to our phones with as much intensity as if they were children?

"You feel sad," I respond to my son, attuning to his emotional world.

"Yes," he states.

"OK. I hear you."

I kneel down to engage with him, face-to-face. 

"Phones are addictive. Lots of research proves this is so. And it's tricky because they are also useful. I promise to do better," I said. 

That night, I make a list of three things I can do to be a more mindful zombie.

1. Unless I'm in need of using the map app, I will put my phone in the back seat of the car. No more phone in the front seat with me.

2. I will carve out a 2-3 hour blocks of time each day wherein I put my phone down, turn it off, and not look at it once. I figure if there's a national emergency, my neighbors will knock on my door. I do not need to be "plugged in" every moment during daylight hours.

3. When we go to our nearby park, or when we go for walks, I will purposefully leave my phone at home. This way I can more fully feel the sun's warmth on my skin and take in the day – sans electronic interruption – with my boy.

Author of Peaceful Parent: Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham writes: "To support yourself in being more present and available, make it a practice to turn off your screens when you're with your child."

Turning off my phone when my son is with me isn't always feasible, but if I can live true to my new three-fold abstention plan, I'm well on my way to becoming a more present, and hence, more mindful mother. After all, I am modeling to my son how to navigate our new screen-inundated world. For no other factor determines a child's use (or misuse) of technology than the habits of her or his parents.

Our children are watching us from the backseat. They are watching us as we eat dinner and "watch" them at the park. They see how many dozens and dozens of times we check our cell phones each day. Do you really want to spend a third of your waking life staring at your phone?

It's time to make an honest inquiry. Our children are watching us – and they are telling us something important.

"It makes me sad," my son said.

Let's be sure we listen.

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