Parents: Get Off Your Phone

Last year, my colleague, Andrew McPeak, hosted several focus groups made up of middle school and early high school students. This was done as research for the book, Marching Off the Map, which will be released later this year.

In the first focus group, a young teenage girl said something that gave us pause. She said, “I never talk to my mom when I get home from school. She’s on Facebook from the time I get home to when I go to bed.”

My first thought was: How sad.

Then, we heard the phrase again. And, again.

We began to see a pattern. Too many students in our focus groups complained about how much their parent(s) (especially their mom) is on social media; that they really don’t talk much to parents because of their preoccupation with Facebook or some other social media site. Some students remarked how mom was laying in bed for hours while on Facebook, or even scrolling through their phone while cooking dinner, leaving little time for conversation between family members. This got me thinking—are we the only ones who’ve seen this?


According to a study reported in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, parents’ use of mobile technology around young children is causing negative interactions with their kids. As smartphones and iPads cause overlap between work and home life, adults (not just kids) are wrestling with how to balance the demands of constant email, social media pings, and news feeds. Three unintended outcomes occur:

  • Negative interactions between adults and kids
  • Internal tension and attention seeking behavior
  • Prolonged conflict between family members.

According to the University of Michigan Health System, “It’s a challenge both parents and health care providers should tune in to. Parents are constantly feeling like they are in more than one place at once while parenting. They’re still ‘at work.’ They’re keeping up socially. All while trying to cook dinner and attend to their kids,” writes lead author Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital who conducted the study with colleagues from Boston Medical Center.

Who would have seen this coming? Technology is not merely a problem with teens and young adults, but with the adult population as well.

May I Offer Some Suggestions?

I will be the first to admit, our portable devices tend to put us all in a reactionary mode. We begin playing “defense” rather than “offense” with our time. We feel the need to respond to every notification, putting ourselves at the mercy of the pings.

Let me begin with the obvious: If we have any hope of raising a young adult who’s not addicted to their phone, we must model that behavior first.

Suggested Strategy to Manage Your Mobile Device:

1. When possible, find your escape time before your kids get home.

We all need time to ourselves. If possible, attempt to take this time before your kids return home from school or practice. The emotional security this provides is almost immeasurable. When you can, you can be emotionally available to them.

2. Learn to mono-task.

We live in a day that seems to demand we multi-task. I am rebelling against this. I’ve found it’s helpful to “mono-task.” To focus completely on one item at a time. I try to fully engage with digital messages, then, fully engage with people in front of me.

3. Be careful of the trickle down effect.

Beware. When we receive bad news or work email, we can project our negative emotions in response to our children afterward. Work to separate these. After your screen time, pause, breathe, collect yourself, and then engage with family afterward.

4. Track your mobile use.

You might consider tracking how much time you spend on sites or screens in general.

Apps like “Moment” and “Quality Time” can help you track mobile use and see where you may be spending too much time. This is very revealing and can inform choices.

5. Communicate boundaries.

You don’t have to be available 100 percent of the time to your kids. They do, however, deserve communication from you when you need boundaries to respond to urgent messages or social time. Be clear when you need to take a break.

6. Plan sacred space.

Years ago, we abolished smart phone use at the dinner table or on special outings. I suggest you come up with your sacred spaces where both adults and children realize that screens are off-limits. It feels limiting at first, but becomes liberating.

7. Identify stressors from digital messaging.

Determine which elements of your portable device cause you the most stress. Then, reserve those tasks for times when your kids are occupied with tasks of their own. This way, no one is interrupting or sending the message: you are less important than my phone right now.

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Parents: Get Off Your Phone