Put Down That Cell Phone! How Your Screen Use Affects Your Children

Dad with a phone in his hands does not pay attention to his little daughter.

Remember the song “Cat’s In The Cradle” by Harry Chapin? It’s an oldie you’ve probably heard a time or two. The song describes how a busy father never seems to have time for his son, who wants to grow up to be just like his dad. As the song continues, the wish comes true as the father realizes his son never has any time for his dad.

For many parents today, their own cell phone use is creating the very same scenario. How many of us have been at a restaurant and observed entire families all glued to their own screens? Or been at the grocery store and see a parent talking on their cell phone through the entire store while ignoring their child sitting in the cart?

Here at Alzein Pediatrics we understand that, for all we try to monitor our children’s screen time and social media, as adults we struggle with our own screen-time habits. Rather than using apps, trackers, settings, and passwords, the very best way to encourage responsible screen and digital device habits in our children is to model those better habits for them.

Beyond modeling better behavior,  parent device-use can powerfully and negatively impact children—from infancy to adolescence—in a whole range of ways that we’d easily recognize if we just stopped scrolling through photos of other people’s kids.

Early research into the effects of digital devices on parent-child relationships concentrated on the interactions and experiences that get lost when parents are distracted or occupied with their phones. Experts found that increased device use created more moments of “absent presence” or “technoference,” moments where parental attention drops sharply. Researchers proves that parental device use results in fewer parent-child interactions. Less parent-child bonding may lead to frail relationships in the future.

However, even if a child can badger and nag their parent to put down the phone to interact with them, the quality of those interactions also suffers. Studies show that parents are less likely to respond meaningfully when interrupted and children are more likely to perceive those responses as hostile. Children quickly learn that interrupting mom or dad when they’re on Instagram brings a very negative reaction, so they stop inviting conversations and interactions.

Fewer and lower-quality parent-child interactions due to screen time can impact a child’s development in a number of ways. Researchers found that screen time actually interrupts the development of “joint attention,” Joint attention is the ability to recognize when someone is looking at something else and to look at it as well, such as being able to enjoy reading a book together or having fun playing a game together. Joint attention is vital to building a strong and meaningful infant-parent bond that can last a lifetime and lead to trusting relationships. It also plays a role in socialization throughout life, so undeveloped joint attention skills will impact your child’s ability to make friends and form healthy relationship with other people and excel in school. Research also indicates that infants experience psychological stress from a parent’s inattention due to technoference.

Very importantly, chronic technoference produces behavioral problems in children of all ages. Children are more likely to develop behavioral problems because of sustained inattention. When children have trouble getting a parent’s attention, and the parent’s response is poor, negative or non-existent and the child interprets the response as both inadequate and hostile, the quality of parent-child interactions decreases dramatically. It creates a cycle of inattention that harms the child’s self-esteem and ultimately weakens the parent-child relationship.

We understand that parents sometimes need a break, and our phones can offer a quick and easy way to take a moment for ourselves. It’s even useful to get support or advice on how to parent!

However, remember that algorithms are built specifically to hold our attention and to ignore anything else beyond that screen.

First, audit your screen time and usage habits to identify where  and when you use it most. If you realize this time is when your child is with you – even if they’re on the soccer practice field – you’re missing interactions, even if it’s just a “great kick, buddy!” shout during drills. Create “device-free” times to limit technoference. Set a timer to stop those algorithms from holding your attention. When you do have to respond to something urgent on your phone, take a breath when finished and remember to respond intentionally to your child. Reflect on whether your child has interrupted your screen-time or if a rage-inducing social media post interrupted your child’s time with you.

The positive news is that every good digital device choice we make is doubly good for our children. Less screen time for everyone creates more opportunity for meaningful interactions and attention. It also sets a better example for our kids’ own screen time.

Avoid using devices and screens as coping mechanisms for your children. When they are bored, stressed or anxious, interact and engage fully with them, parent to child, to create and build a powerful bond.

Alzein Pediatrics asks you to put down your devices while in office with us. We love seeing you and love having your full attention; this sets a great example for your child as they learn to interact with us as well!

Do you have questions about your child’s screen time – and your own? Message Alzein Pediatrics through your portal. We are always happy to help!

About the Author
Newsletter Icon
Get Our E-Newsletter