trick question. If you believe a lot of the hype about distracted parents — paying more attention to their devices than their kids — the most egregious screen usage was my own. But is distracted parenting really that bad?
The answer is… sometimes. According to experts, a lot depends on how and why we use our screens. Just as we worry about the impact of screen time on our children’s mental health, we should ask ourselves what our own screen time is doing to our self-esteem as parents.
Here’s how experts say parents can use gadgets that help them be better parents, not worse ones.
How to define distracted parenting
Experts have been studying the impact of smartphones on parents for almost as long as we’ve had phones to distract us from our kids. And the evidence, according to multiple studies spanning a decade or so, certainly suggests that phones really do have the potential to make us worse parents. Not only are we less likely to pay attention to our children’s physical safety when typing and scrolling, we may overlook their emotional cues and the types of quality interactions that are particularly important to younger children’s development.
Before we all throw our smartphones out the window, it’s important to define exactly what we mean by distracted parenting. “Phone use during parenthood is very nuanced,” says Dr. Brandon McDaniel, a research scientist at the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation who has extensively studied the impact of technology on parents and children. According to McDaniel, there are both positive and negative ways to use your phone when you’re with your kids. Positive ways might be to ask a friend for moral support when you’re at your frustration limit, or to get useful information (“Hey, Siri, should my baby’s poop be purple?”).
There are also those simply inevitable times when we need to take a work call or respond to a text message from a spouse or caregiver. McDaniel says this kind of distracted parenting is likely to be benign: “The occasional phone call probably won’t have any long-term negative effects,” he says.
A less useful and more problematic form of using technology while parenting is using the phone as an escape from the uncomfortable feelings of stress, boredom, and loneliness that are all part of parenting, no matter how much you love your children. The real problem with this kind of voluntary, distracted parenting—as opposed to completing a quick and necessary task—is that it often backfires.
“Occasionally, parents will say that playing a game or scrolling social media took their minds off how negative they were feeling and allowed them to reconnect with their children, although that’s rare,” says McDaniel. “More often, these ‘escape’ types of use result in guilt or wasted time.”
“Research has shown a possible cycle in which phone use in the vicinity of a child can lead to increased negative behavior in the child, resulting in greater stress for parents, although they had hoped to relieve some stress by using the phone,” says McDaniel. In other words, we’re looking at our phones because we’re down, and we (and our kids) are down because we’re looking at our phones.
Parents shouldn’t blame themselves if they find it difficult to resist just a quick update from Facebook, even when they know it’s not in their best interests or those of their children. Many social media apps and platforms “encourage parents to post, respond to, and consume endless amounts of content,” says Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School, who specializes in media and childhood education development.
Paradoxically, much of this parenting engagement on social media makes us feel worse as parents, and not just because we ignore our kids for it. Parents can be just as vulnerable to the “compare and despair” aspects of platforms like Instagram and Facebook as anyone. Radesky says parents she’s interviewed have told her that “it sometimes feels like other parents are doing self-promotion about themselves,” but they have a hard time separating the fiction of social media from the often unglamorous reality separate from raising children.
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To cut down on unproductive screen time when you’re with your kids — the kind that makes you feel worse off as a parent — Radesky suggests creating some roadblocks so you stop before you tap this app. For example, if removing apps feels too extreme, she says, you can hide them in folders so they’re not immediately visible when you pick up your phone. You can change your lock screen to an image that reminds you of the limits you have set in terms of tech usage.
Radesky also recommends sharing what you’re doing when you’re using your phone, both to get your kids involved (“let’s text your babysitter and tell her to meet us at the playground”) and to keep yourself engaged to hold your decisions accountable. Do you really want to have to tell your kids, “Mom takes a second to check that momfluencer she hates for the tenth time this hour”?
Reconsider not only your relationship with your phone, but also your relationship with the people you’re hiding – your children. “My advice to parents is to be mindful of your technology use and carefully consider when and why you pick up your phone,” says McDaniel. You are bored? Frustrated? Having trouble connecting?
“If you get bored when you’re with your child, ask yourself what activities you can do that you both really enjoy,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a pediatrics and child mental health expert. “I love to bake, so my boys started cooking before they could walk.”
Capanna-Hodge suggests approaching your time with your child with the attitude that it will be fun for both of you. If not, change things up. “Find a structure that works for you,” she says. “If you know you feel frustrated, impatient and likely to be reaching for your phone at certain times of the day, change your routines.”
For me, it’s dinner time whether my husband is home or not. I can’t say we’ve met the goal of a consistently tech-free dinner class (or even a dinner that lasts longer than 20 minutes), but I’m trying to embrace the chaos, mess, and madness of meals rather than mine cram kids in screens so i can write a snarky text about how hard it is to be a parent. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that engaging with my kids at the dinner table helps ease the transition to bedtime. And if I really need it, my phone is still there when they sleep.