Raising Your Child in a Digital World:

Finding a healthy balance of time online without techno tantrums and conflict

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Home » Parents » Plugged-in parenting: are we addicted to our smartphones? (PART 1)

Plugged-in parenting: are we addicted to our smartphones? (PART 1)

Part 1- Are we spending too much time with our devices?

We closely monitor our kids’ screen-time. We fret about whether they’re spending too much time online. We worry about whether we’re introducing screens at too young an age. But have we stopped to think about our screen-time habits?

Is our digital infatuation impacting our kids?

Many of us are shouting, “Turn off the iPad!” from behind our iPhone. We’re tethered to our smartphone for the entire swimming lesson, or soccer training session. We’re taking our smartphones to bed and the dinner table with us.

Many of us (myself at times) are tethered to our devices and our kids are noticing (and imitating).

In my book Raising Your Child in a Digital World, I share a story of a 4- year old girl describing her father’s smartphone as a “dumb phone”, as she was upset that he was always talking and consumed by it and not her. She was 4 and had already observed his digital obsession.

I know how easy it is to use our phones when our kids are around.  I also succumb to the digital pull when my kids are around (and don’t for a second profess to be perfect at this). It’s so easy to do.

But is this something we need to consider?  Yes!

Kids crave our attention but sometimes our phones get in the way. Even our youngest kids aren’t too young to observe our digital infatuation.”

Our kids think we’re spending too much time with our devices

A study commissioned by AVG found that 54% of kids aged 8 to 13 years think their parents spend too much time on their devices and 32% reported feeling “unimportant” when phones distracted their parents when they were playing outside, engaging in conversation and having dinner.  

Common Sense Media also released a report in 2016 titled Common Sense Census: Plugged in Parents of Tweens and Teens. The study found that parents of tweens and teens spend an average of 9 hours/day with screens (the vast majority of which was for personal media use) and 78% felt that they were good role models to their kids. Another study by Common Sense media titled Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance. It found that 41% of teens feel their parents get distracted by devices and don’t pay attention when they are together and 28% of teens feel their parents are addicted to their mobile devices.

We’ve also had children designing apps that would empower them to control their parents’ use of technology, so that they could spend more time with their parents. You can read more here about how kids designed a STEL app- stop texting and enjoy life app!

That’s right, our kids are observing our screen infatuation.

So why do we find it so hard to disconnect from our devices (yes, there are neurobiological reasons biological drivers that explain our screen habits)?

Now before you think this is a post to techno-shame parents I want to assure you that it’s not. I’m not suggesting that we need to completely abstain from using technology when we’re with our kids. I’m not suggesting that we need to avoid using our phones around our kids. That’s totally unrealistic and it’s actually not necessary. Our kids need to see us using technology, but they also need to see us unplug. They need to see us model healthy technology habits.

That’s why I talk to parents in my Parent Seminars about planning, not banning technology. That applies equally to our kids’ screen-time as it does to our screen-time.

I’ll be honest and admit that I’m nervous to share this blog post because I’d hate for this to be misconstrued as judgemental. I’m the first to admit that we never know anyone’s full-story so this isn’t about judging other people’s choices because there could be legitimate reasons why parents need to be using their devices when they’re with their kids. (In my book I share a sad story where a dad was publicly shamed on social media for using his phone at the park, when he was desperately trying to arrange childcare so he could attend a job interview.)

Why do we need to be careful of how much time we’re spending with digital devices?

// We’re missing the micro-moments with our kids-

We can be at football training, yet responding to a work crisis that’s unfolding in the office, thanks to email. We can be at swimming lessons, yet solving a family issue at the same time, thanks to instant messaging. But what’s the cost?”

When our child looks up at us through their foggy, water-filled goggles at swimming lessons desperately hoping to get a big smile, or a big thumbs-up to approve of the new skill they learnt, they’re often getting no response. Parents are literally glued to their screen. And missing the micro-moments with our kids.

Our previous moments of rest and white-space are now being swallowed by our devices. And we’re missing all the small moments with our kids or observing our kids (or simply giving our brains a break from constantly processing the stream of information that comes from our phones and digital devices).

I watched a baby in a pram the other day trying desperately to distract her dad who was consumed by his phone. After a couple a minute or so of trying to gain his attention, she eventually gave up. (Again, I’m the first to admit that I don’t know that dad’s full story- he may have needed a moment of respite, or he may have been dealing with a crisis with his family or at work). But he’ll never get that moment back with his daughter. What happens if this becomes a repeated behaviour? What will his daughter learn? What will she miss out on?

We can be watching our daughter’s ballet lesson, but simultaneously averting a crisis at work on our phone. However, we’re also missing her look at you for the smile of approval that she just remembered a choreographed move that’s taken weeks to learn. We might be sending an SMS to a friend at soccer practice, but you may also be missing your son look at you when he finally kicks the ball over the posts. You might be ordering the family groceries so your family actually has food in their lunch boxes this week, but you may also be missing your child master a new skill.

Sometimes, I think that we’ve simply allowed screens to seep into our lives. We’ve allowed our devices to fill the voids. Our screens now fill the white space we once had (and enjoyed and that our brains actually need). We’ve developed an unhealthy dependence on technology. A digital dependence. And I’ll admit that I’m not immune to this habit from time to time. Technology has a strong pull on our attention. And if we’re not careful it can captivate our attention and redirect it from our most important priorities.

Now I know some of you may suggest that your parents read a book or a magazine at swimming lessons or at football training and you’re not psychologically-scarred from this. And that may be the truth. But a smartphone or tablet is very different to a book or magazine. For starters, when we use a digital device we often suffer from a ‘state of insufficiency’.  That is, we never ever feel ‘complete’ or ‘done’. There’s always something else that can come into our inbox, or we can always refresh our social media feed and find something else to look at. Books and magazines have a clear finish point. Our screens are also a lot more engaging than magazines, with their sensory smorgasbord they offer. A book or magazine rarely had the captivating pull, like our phones have on us.

// Safety risk to our kids-

In my book I report there are increasing numbers of Australian children presenting to emergency departments with playground injuries. Anecdotally, pediatricians are suggesting two theories to account for this increase in injury rates: (i) kids are spending less time outdoors playing so they lack the physical skills to navigate playground equipment and are sustaining more injuries; and (ii) parents’ digital distraction (resulting in children sustaining injuries from unsupervised play).

There are some reports that children have died or sustained serious injuries because parents are distracted by their phones. Our brains are incapable of multitasking. We can’t adequately supervise our kids and respond to email. We just can’t!

Again, I understand that sometimes sitting down at the park when our little one is finally ready to play and give us five minutes of sanity time it’s tempting to reach for our phone. Getting lost in the online vortex is sometimes more appealing than settling sibling arguments or fixing broken lego sets. I understand that sometimes we just need a break from parenting (yes, I’ve also snuck into the pantry and used for my phone for some much-needed sanity time!) and our phones are an appealing place of solace.

// Our kids are imitating our habits-

Thanks to mirror neurons, our kids are born to imitate us. This is exactly why our child copies our partner’s worst habits (never our habits of course!!). The research confirms that kids who come from homes where parents have a lot of screen-time, so to do their kids. No surprises really. Monkey see, monkey do.

There are some well-known exceptions to this rule. As many of you have probably read, Steve Jobs and other tech executives were reported to be low-tech parents. As Adam Alter writes in his book Irresistible- The rise of addictive technology & the business of keeping us hooked, “It seemed as if the people producing tech products were following the cardinal rule of drug dealing: never get high on your own supply.” (p. 2).

// We get agitated and frustrated

When we’re trying to type an email and our toddler is barking orders for a snack, it’s only natural that we get frustrated. When our teenage son is pleading for the iPad so he can do his homework (when he really wants to just game) and we’re trying to complete a report on your laptop we get agitated. We feel as though we’re being pulled in multiple directions. We feel like we need to be simultaneously in multiple places. And that’s exhausting!

It seems we’re always buzzing, receiving alerts and generally switched on. Thanks to digital technologies, we’re now always connected. This means that the lines of demarcation between work, home and personal lives are now blurred.  This is physically and psychologically taxing on us.

Our brains aren’t designed to be constantly ‘on’. We’re constantly processing information. However, we need white space. We need time to enter what neuroscientists call ‘mind-wandering’ mode, where we daydream (and turn off our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for all of our higher-order thinking skills like impulse control and working memory).

When we try and multitask (which is what we’re doing in these situations where we’re managing kids and devices), our brain cannot cope.  In fact, we know that when we try and multitask our brain burns through glucose (energy supply) and releases cortisol (stress hormone).  We also send information to the wrong part of our brain (the striatum) and not the hippocampus (the memory centre).

(As an aside this is what I explain in my Attention Please seminar that I deliver to educators and students- to help them understand the costs of multitasking).

As parents, we’re grappling to balance it all. It’s draining. It’s often overwhelming. And it’s often our devices that are to blame.

A study confirmed this feeling. In the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics a study reported that parents are feeling the digital pull. When we use our digital devices around children it causes internal tension, conflicts and negative interactions with our kids. We often feel like our phones are managing us!

We become frustrated when we’re interrupted on our device. This is referred to as the “trickle down effect”. The human brain isn’t capable of processing kids’ demands and simultaneously reading incoming emails on our smartphones. When we feel compelled to pay attention to a work email—or look at news alerts, text messages, or a thousand other things that make our phones vibrate or ping—and our kids need our attention, we feel internally conflicted. In the study reported in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics both mothers and fathers complained of three things: information overload, emotional stress, and a disruption in their families’ routines, all triggered by the constant presence of a phone or tablet.

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I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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