Your cell phone can help you stay on top of your schedule, keep you connected to work and family, but it can also potentially do a lot of damage to your relationship with your children if it becomes excessive, according to a new study.
Researchers from Boston Medical Center did an undercover study in 15 fast food restaurants to observe parents and children together. Parents in 40 out of the 55 families observed were completely absorbed in their cell phones. They were busy texting, talking, swiping through social media — and not communicating with their kids.
What’s interesting to note is the children’s reactions to their parents’ behavior. For the most part, the children appeared to be unaffected and continued eating their meals quietly. Some clamored for attention by singing songs, but according to the study, all were negatively impacted by being ignored.
What’s worse, though, is the parents’ reaction when their children wanted attention. One child was kicked under the table in response to her child trying to get her attention, and another dad was clearly irritated and responded harshly to his children. “There were a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction between the adults and the children,” says Dr. Jenny S. Radesky, a lead author of the study. “That’s simply unfair to the children.”
But before we start parent shaming, let’s take a step back for a second. As a parent, who hasn’t been on their phone in public? After all, the study doesn’t go into depth into what the parents were potentially doing on their phones. Maybe they were scheduling a pediatric appointment for their child, or perhaps they were connecting with an ill family member to see how they were doing. Or there might have been an emergency work call that the parent had to take. And maybe, just maybe, they needed a break from being with their kid all day. (It happens, and it’s okay.) Again, it’s unclear why the parents were on their phones — and since we’ve all pretty much done the same, those involved in the study should be given a little grace — and the benefit of the doubt.
This Is How You Can Tell If You’re On Your Phone Too Much
Still, phones are fun and children, sometimes, well, aren’t. But how do you know when you’re treading into territory that might adversely affect your child? You need to be honest about how often you’re scrolling on social, Dr. Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst explains. “The first thing parents need to do is self-diagnose,” says Luiz. “The phone can be a way to successfully make it through many boring hours of childcare while staying connected to the real world. It can prevent depression, and it can create comfort and ease.”
On the flip side, though, the phone can be a means to a momentary mental getaway. “On a bad day, though, it can be a way to escape, get away from your child or deny difficult realities by escaping,” she adds. “That’s called an addiction, and it’s not healthy.”
Here’s Why Being On Your Cell Phone Too Much Isn’t Good
They say you can never have too much of a good thing — unless you’re a parent who’s perpetually on their phone, apparently. Studies (like the one cited here) point out the perils of being on your phone too much, from an increased risk of depression, poor sleeping and eating habits, and a greater chance for anxiety. Researchers are quick to point out that it’s not necessarily how much time you spend on your phone, but the quality of the content you consume.
Here are some reasons why it’s smart to put the smartphone down:
Being On Your Cell Phone Too Much Can Cause Your Child To Feel Neglected
Sure, you might feel better after you’ve scrolled through social media, but your child might not feel the same way. “Parent-child relationships can suffer from excessive cell phone usage,” says Jason Shiers, a certified psychotherapist and addiction trauma ED specialist. “It can cause feelings of neglect or disinterest in the child and disrupt parent-child bonding.” Knowing that your child might feel miserable if they want to snuggle but you’re too engrossed in pug prank videos just might make you put down your phone a few minutes sooner and carve out some extra bonding time.
Being On Your Cell Phone Too Much Can Be Unsafe
While the emotional aspect of being on your phone too much is crucial, there’s also the safety factor to consider as well. After all, being distracted by the latest dance challenge on TikTok while your child is running amok on the playground can bring its own set of problems. “There are very few times and places that cell phone usage is actually safe, in terms of situational awareness,” says Carrie Conrad, a prevention and defense specialist and founder of Beating Disaster. “The two most secure places would be in your home with locked doors as well as in a locked vehicle that’s parked and with the engine running. Anywhere in public puts you and your family at increased risk. So cutting phone usage out during all times outside of those two spaces often makes a huge difference for most families.”
Being On Your Cell Phone Too Much Might Be Masking Other Issues
It’s one thing to answer an email or two — and it’s entirely another to spend the next hour clearing out your inbox. To know why you might be on your phone more frequently than you should be, do a self-check. “You may feel trapped, you may have children who are extremely demanding, and you may need more help,” advises Luiz. “Whatever the case may be, exploring your feelings more will be what prevents your phone from becoming a liability so that it can go back to enhancing your life and making it easier and more enjoyable to care for your children for many long hours.”
Here’s How You Can Enjoy Being On Your Phone — And Still Take Care Of Your Kid, Too
The first step towards a more balanced life is understanding that you don’t have to dedicate every single waking second to creating quality moments with your kiddo. You just don’t.
“It’s really important to remember that parents do not need to give their children full attention around the clock,” advises Luiz. “Children need a parent who is available immediately when they are needed, and it is up to the child to reveal how much interaction they want.” As a parent, you’re always going to be busy, whether it’s washing dishes, doing laundry, working a full-time job, or even just trying to squeeze in a shower. So your child can keep themselves busy for a bit until you’re ready to play with them; the only time your phone can be a burden is when you can’t be there for your child when they truly need you.
And that means having boundaries that protect your downtime, too. “Parents can establish healthy boundaries around their phone usage, such as limiting screen time, turning off notifications during designated family time, or creating certain areas of the home as phone-free zones,” advises Shiers. “Parents can also demonstrate positive phone behavior by using their devices responsibly and being fully attentive when interacting with their child.”
You can also become more creative with how you use your phone so that your child feels involved rather than excluded. For starters, you might want to FaceTime the fam with your 2-year-old in tow rather than texting. “Is it inconvenient? Absolutely,” says Conrad. “But most safe choices are. And does it increase connection? Yes.”
From answering a text to checking out some pics your BFF just posted online of their newborn baby, there is always going to be a reason (or four) to go on your phone. And more often than not, it’s going to occur with your kiddo right next to you. What’s important, though, is to have the mindfulness to strike that balance between staying connected to your child while still using your smart phone, regardless of whether it’s for work or play. And when that happens, you’ll be giving an awesome example to your child of what it means to be connected — in all the right ways.
Dr. Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst
Jason Shiers, a certified psychotherapist and addiction trauma ED specialist
Carrie Conrad, a prevention and defense specialist and founder of Beating Disaster