Having a cell phone is like having a baby that never grows up. The phone demands immediate attention through various little sounds and you, and only you, understand the meaning. You keep it by your side wherever you go and get nervous if it is gone for a second. Like a new baby, phones are exciting and add so much goodness to family life. They are infatuating and make us all smile. And there is something about that phone that draws you to it, even when you want a break from it. And, like a new baby, your other children compete with it for attention.
We’ve all noticed how cell phones have changed parenting, but there is limited scientific research that measures what is really happening to children born to parents with smart phones. A group of researchers in Boston went and sat at fast food restaurants during dinner time and recorded how many parents were using cell phones and how the children reacted. The results of this study are published in this month’s edition of the medical journal Pediatrics. Here’s what they found:
- Out of the 55 observed caregivers, 40 caregivers (73%) used devices at some point during the meal.
- Nearly 30% of caregivers used the device almost continuously throughout the meal, only briefly putting it down.
- Only some children competed with the phone for their parent’s attention, but when it happened it was ugly. A set of boys sang, “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” while their father seemed increasingly frustrated and incrementally elevated his voice and anger to try to get them to behave, yet did not put down his smart phone. Another toddler held his caregiver’s face and tried to push her gaze away from her tablet so that she would look at him.
- Other children were more passive, not competing for attention. They entertained themselves with their food or with toys from kids meals while their parents focused on phones.
- A few families had fun together on their phones, making videos of funny dogs outside the restaurant and sharing them through social media.
But here’s the key difference between a cell phone and a baby—a cell phone cannot love you back. We don’t love phones, we use them. It is a one-way relationship. It’s the kind of relationship we teach our children to stay away from. How can we teach healthy relationships if we don’t model them?
“[Absorbed caregivers] seemed very irritated and flustered at trying to balance their attention between parenting and whatever they were doing on their device,” said lead author Dr. Jenny Radesky. “Another major dynamic was that the child kept trying to make conversation and the caregiver would respond in a way that was delayed or didn’t seem attuned to what the child was saying.”
Attuned. This is the key word here. I believe in “Attunement Parenting,” giving our children the relationship they need so that they can form healthy relationships. This doesn’t mean getting rid of your cell phone all together, or banning digital devices for children under the age of 12 as a Huffington Post author recently suggested. It means being attuned to their needs and yours, recognizing when our children need our attention, and making the sacrifices necessary to be there for them. Sacrifices like putting your phone away.
What are your “talking times” with your children? Family dinner? School pick up? Bedtime? Whatever they are, keep them sacred. Define them. Talk to your family about them. Be sure to make eye contact with each of your children during these times. Definitely put your phone away. Ignore the bleeps. They will notice that you ignore the bleeps in favor of their conversation and eye contact.
Kids whose parents aren’t attuned to them will not be attuned to their parents, soon. You will be “alone together,” staring at cell phones around a table or on the car ride home from school. Remember that toddler in the study who was pushing his caregiver’s face away from the screen to get her attention? Before long he will give up and entertain himself, probably with his own screen.
So love your child—not your phone—before your child loves his phone and not you.