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Should I be on my phone near my kid?
A deep dive on parent screen time
Greetings techno sapiens! We’ve got a long one this week. For an overview of the research, thoughts on parent guilt, and videos of adorable babies, read on. For practical tips and strategies, feel free to skip to the end.
14 min read
I’m sitting, hunched over inside a stuffy play tent, stacking squishy, multi-colored blocks one on top of the other. Should we build a tower? I’m counting with each block. One, two, three…Each time I get to five, my eight-month-old son flails his hand in the general direction of the tower, scattering the blocks across the floor. He’s delighted, a toothy grin spreading across his face. This, for him, is the best thing since sliced bread. (Sliced bread was last week). We then repeat the game. Over and over.
As I reach the count of five for the 37th time, I notice my phone light up with a notification from Slack. There’s a moment’s pause. My brain spins into a triple-axel of possible scenarios—a question from a co-worker, good news on a recent publication, bad news on a grant submission. This could be urgent, I tell myself.
I pick it up.
It’s not urgent—is it ever urgent? But while I’m on my phone anyway, I might as well respond. And then if I’ve already responded once, I should probably answer those follow up questions. And I should probably quickly check that one thing in my email to make sure my response is correct…
Meanwhile, my son lets out a dramatic, high-pitched whine as he thrusts himself, face-first, into my lower abdomen.
The scenario ended as you might imagine. A set of tiny, chubby fingers grabbing repeatedly at the phone. An indecipherable Slack thread about statistical effects. A forgotten block tower.
A very guilty parent.
I know I’m not alone in this experience. (Please tell me I’m not alone in this experience?) Parenting can be hard,1 and when our phones—with their promises of entertainment, work productivity, and conversation with other adults—are just a few inches away, it’s hard to resist the temptation.
So, should we feel bad about using our phones around our kids?
This week: a deep dive into the research on parents’ device use around their young kids2. Does it lead to negative outcomes? Should we feel guilty about it?
I began this investigation—born out of both professional and personal interest—secretly hoping to find full exoneration. No negative effects! No more guilt! Chubby, grabby fingers are a sign of burgeoning genius! (Or something).
Instead, as we always do, I found something more complicated.
The short answer:
There’s no concrete evidence of long-term harm to our children caused by using our phones around them, but there’s enough evidence of potential short-term effects that it makes sense to be mindful of it. Some amount of phone use around our kids is probably okay, but if we’re absorbed in our devices in a way that interferes with our ability to connect with and respond to them, this can become a problem. Also, let’s be kind to ourselves.
The benefits of parent phone use
Before we get into the potential negatives of device use around our kids, let’s talk about the benefits. Benefits? You ask. What kind of unhinged screen-worshipping heathen are you?
But let’s remember, parents aren’t generally going on their devices just because. There’s usually something behind it, even if that “something” is simply an escape from the boredom and monotony that can surround childcare tasks.
For parents of toddlers, pre-school, and early school-age kids, phone use is often used as a source of emotional and informational support. In a recent study of 296 parents of children ages 3 to 6, parents described positive aspects of device use around their kids:
75% said that they use their devices to find in-the-moment parenting strategies
79% said that device use helps them think of activities to do with their child
58% said using a device helps them calm down when they’re at their breaking point
When it comes to infants, phone use may similarly be helpful to parents during feedings. This can include distraction (i.e., from pain or frustration), relief from boredom, connection and support from family or other mothers, productivity, and access to information and resources. A recent study with 249 parents of infants under 12 months found that a full 97% of parents at least sometimes use media while feeding their infant (breast or bottle). More time spent using media during feedings was actually associated with decreases in parent and child dysfunction one year later.
From the authors: Media provides mothers with connection, a chance to remain productive, and a way to cope with the difficulties of feeding, all of which may help a parent (mothers especially) navigate the emotional difficulties of parenting.3
So, it’s fine then?
Not exactly. Clearly, there are real benefits to parents’ device use, and very valid reasons why parents use their devices around their kids, but as we dig further into the research, a more complex picture emerges.
Researchers love to come up with clever names for everyday experiences that, probably, don’t need names. I thus present to you: technoference.4
Technoference is the term used to describe intrusions and interruptions in face-to-face parent-child time, caused by phones and mobile devices. It is catchy, I’ll admit. It’s also common. 65% of mothers of children ages 3 and under, for example, report that their technology use at least sometimes interferes with playtime.
There are two primary concerns about technoference.
The first concern is that we see reduced parental “responsiveness” and “sensitivity.” The idea is that, when we’re distracted by our phones, we’re worse at responding to our child’s needs. We’re not as attuned, for example, to our infants’ cues that they’re ready to stop feeding. We don’t notice when our kids are trying to get our attention by, say, thrusting themselves, face-first, into our lower abdomens.
When we’re absorbed in our devices, we interact with our kids less, which could impact things like language development. We might also end up showing delayed, inappropriate, or even harsh responses to our kids, or creating safety concerns—like when we’re absorbed in an email and suddenly notice our child toddling over to the nearest electrical outlet.5
The second potential problem with technoference is disruptions in “attachment.” Attachment is an important aspect of parent-child relationships, and refers to the connection formed between the parent and child. Here, the concern is that, with frequent and repeated device distraction, we’re missing out on important opportunities to connect with our children and help them learn to regulate their emotions.
Well, that sounds bad. What does the data say?
Much of the data, as if often the case in an emerging field of research, is not great. There are a number of cross-sectional studies (see this review) showing that parents who report more frequent phone use during interactions with their child also report more child behavior problems, lower feelings of connection, and greater stress. From a research standpoint, these studies are important because they lay the groundwork for future studies. From a what-do-I-do-as-a-parent standpoint, though, they’re basically useless. There’s an obvious chicken-and-egg problem, and there are too many other variables at play—like, maybe parents who are already more stressed are more likely to report technoference and child behavior problems.
There is also at least one longitudinal study on this topic, which suggests that the effects might go in both directions. Among 183 parents of 0- to 5-year-olds, technoference was associated with child behavior problems one, three, and six months later; but child behavior problems were also associated with later parenting stress and, in turn, more technoference. We still can’t be sure which came first, and we can’t rule out the possibility that other factors are driving these effects.
Then we get to the experimental studies. This is where my hopes of full parent guilt exoneration really went down the tube.
A quick Developmental Psychology 101 lesson: there’s a famous experiment, developed in the 1970s, called the Still Face Paradigm. Here’s how it works. A parent brings their baby or toddler into a lab. The parent is instructed to play normally with the kid for a few minutes (the “free play” phase). Then, there’s the “still face” phase. The parent is instructed to exhibit a blank facial expression, and not to engage or interact with the child in any way. This lasts for another couple minutes. Finally, in the “reunion phase” the parent resumes acting normally.
Dozens of studies have used this paradigm, and the results are consistent. Children become very distressed during the “still face” phase. They show signs of confusion, repeated (unsuccessful) bids for attention, and negative emotions, like sadness and stress. During the “reunion” phase, these effects partially carry-over. It takes kids awhile (i.e., at least a few minutes) to get back to their normal baseline functioning.
For those who are interested, here’s a video of one baby in the classic still-face experiment. Note: if you’re anything like me, you cannot watch this video without your face involuntary turning into a very sad pout. The thought of being the experimenter who had to watch hundreds of these interactions makes my palms sweat.
Anyway, what does this have to do with using our phones around our children? You probably know where this is going.
Two recent experiments have replicated the classic Still Face Paradigm, with one major modification. Instead of looking at the child with a blank expression during the “still face” phase, parents were instructed to look at their phones.
One of these studies was done in a lab, with 50 mothers and their children ages 7 months to 24 months. During the phone-induced still-face phase, children showed more negative emotions, fewer positive emotions, less engagement with toys, and more “social bids” (i.e., unsuccessful attempts to get mom’s attention).
In another (very logistically impressive) study, researchers went into the homes of 316 parents of infants ages 5 months to 14 months. While the infants sat in their high chairs, parents were given the same instructions during the “still face” phase—to use their phones and not engage with the infants. Same outcome. Infants showed more negative emotions and less positive emotions. They also tried harder to comfort themselves, looked away from the parent, and tried to “escape” from their high chairs.6
If you’d like to watch an upsetting video of a parent and (slightly older) kid participating in a replication of the phone-induced still-face experiment, I leave you this.
Okay, so what does this all mean?
Taken together, we do not have evidence of long-term harms caused by parent device use around young kids. We just don’t know whether technoference leads to real, prolonged disruptions in things like connection or attachment with our children. We’d need a lot more research to get to that point—including studies that follow parents and kids over many years, and those that randomly assign some parents to use devices around their children and some not to. We may never get there.
What we do have is evidence of short-term effects—stress, sadness, and (maybe) more behavior problems. In experimental studies, we also see that these short-term effects can last at least a few minutes—children don’t instantly recover when parents put down their phones and re-engage. Though we don’t have definitive long-term evidence, we might make a reasonable assumption that, over prolonged periods of time, technoference can disrupt our interactions with our children.
Of course, relying on our children’s signs of stress as a guide for our behavior doesn’t always make sense. Just because a child gets upset about something doesn’t mean that thing is bad for them. My child gets incredibly distressed when I prevent him from trying to stick his (chubby, grabby, adorable) fingers directly into the sharp grate below our fridge. This doesn’t mean I should change my parenting behavior. I’m still relatively confident that keeping him away from the grate—despite his protests—is the best thing for him.
But these studies, in my opinion, are enough to warrant caution.
We’re left, as we so often are as parents, in a gray area. Is it okay to occasionally glance at our phones while building block towers with our kids? Probably yes. Is it okay to be constantly absorbed in our phones around our kids, in a way that interferes with our responsiveness to them? Probably no. Are there benefits to our device use? Yes. But are there drawbacks? Also yes. Exactly how much phone use, and in what circumstances, is okay? This is where the data can’t help us.
This middle-ground is a hard place to be as a parent, especially when it falls—as it frequently does—between some romanticized ideal of a tech-free utopia and the actual, plugged-in reality of our everyday existence. Especially when that middle-ground seems to come with a steady stream of judgement and accusations. The vast majority of us are going to occasionally check an email, or send a text, or pop open Instagram, while we’re with our kids. That’s the world we live in, and that’s okay. Maybe the key is to be mindful of where we are in that middle-ground, to be intentional about finding the balance that feels right to us: the one that works for our families, and the one that works for us, as parents (and people).
When we talk about challenging parenting topics like this one—ones that tend to provoke guilt—what we hear is so often black-and-white. We see the extremes. If you so much as think about looking at a screen while near your kid, they will spontaneously burst into flames. Or, on the other side, No more guilt! Do whatever you want around your kid and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Maybe that’s because our feelings about guilt, itself, are black-and-white. What we’re doing as parents is either good or bad. We should either feel incapacitated with guilt, or we should banish guilt entirely. All we need is the research to give us a clear answer, so that we can sail away, guilt-free, knowing that everything is just fine.
But parenting, just like the guilt that often comes with it, is more complicated than that. Guilt—in reasonable doses7—serves a purpose. It tells us that our behavior is not aligning with our values. That we may want to make a change. It points us in the right direction.
We want our guilt to just go away. Instead, we can use it. We can use it to encourage us to put our phones out of reach when we’re building block towers, to remind us to turn off Slack notifications on weekends, to prompt us to stay mindful of the ways our phones are getting in the way of toothy grins and chubby fingers.
There’s a trick in psychology for moving past extreme thinking, for rising above the black-and-white: it’s replacing the word but with the word and. It reminds us that two things can be true at the same time. We can use our phones around our kids sometimes, and we can try our hardest to not let it happen too often or for too long each time. We can feel guilty, and we can be great parents.
We can always be doing things better, and we can be doing everything right.
Practical Tips and Ideas:
Be kind to yourself. Regulating our phone use is hard, especially when we’re also dealing with the stress of parenting. We all know that our phones are designed to make them hard to put down (and tempting to pick back up). Let’s forgive ourselves when our phone use doesn’t go exactly as planned.
Be mindful. Everyone’s different, and the goal is to be mindful of what works for you. When spending time with your kid, pause briefly before picking up your phone. In that moment, consider why you want to use it. Necessity? Boredom? Stress? Habit?
Set limits. Make certain activities or times of day “phone on” or “phone free.” Phone free times might include mealtimes, or playtime, or evenings between, say, 5-6pm.
Use friction to your advantage. Make resisting the phone easier by putting it in another room, or simply out of reach. You can also minimize your phone’s allure by turning off notifications, or deleting overused apps.
Course correct. If you notice yourself absorbed in your phone, gently (non-judgmentally) bring yourself back to the present moment. You can say to your kid: Oops! I was getting distracted by my phone. I’m going to put it down now.
Make it fun. Use tech to your (and your kid’s) advantage. Play some music in the background, or Facetime together with a family member or friend.
Change scenery. It’s easier to get caught on our phones when we’re stuck in a routine. Try getting outside, going for a walk, or using a different space in the house.
Step away. If you need to send an email, or just want a 5-minute break to scroll, try stepping away (while, obviously, still keeping an eye on them). How this will work depends on your kid’s age, but helping them build independent play skills is important. You can say: I need to take a quick break. I’ll be right over here, and I’ll be back to play with you again in 5 minutes. Why don’t you see how tall you can make this tower while I’m gone?
Note: I recognize that my child is still very young, and that this whole parenting thing will only get harder.
This post focuses on young kids—primarily babies, toddlers, and pre-school age, because that’s where the vast majority of the experimental research has been done on this topic. This is, of course, a broad age range, and different issues arise across this range. Things change, for example, when a kid can talk and express (very) strong opinions about your (and their own) screen time. Other issues arise as kids get older. By the time we get to pre-teens and teens, we’re talking about a whole new set of issues, including hypersensitivity to any perceived screen time hypocrisy. We’ll cover these older ages in a later post.
I particularly appreciated the authors’ concluding statement in this study: Perhaps instead of making parents (mothers especially) feel guilty about the potential impact of media use while feeding may have on their infants, society should focus on helping mothers to utilize their technology in specific ways that assuage the difficulties of parenting and improve parents’ mental health. You tell ‘em, authors! Might print this on a t-shirt.
Other fun examples of concepts to which psychologists have given names: phubbing, i.e., snubbing (ignoring) another person because we’re using our device, and nomophobia, i.e., fear of being without one’s phone.
This is another fear born of personal experience. My child has recently started crawling, and thus, has reached the stage where any non-babyproofed object in the room attracts him like a magnet. Even things I didn’t previously imagine could be dangerous have become landmines. The other day, he somehow found and ate—I kid you not—a small piece of a friend’s holiday card.
How do studies like these measure infant behaviors? Typically, they video record the interactions, and then a team of researchers watches the video to “code” certain behaviors. The coding guide is included in this paper, and includes things like “Escape Behaviors. Description: arching, twisting back, gesturing to be picked up…” and “Self-comforting behaviors. Description: sucking thumb, rubbing face or head, holding ear.” Sucking thumb! Holding ear! BRB, going to go cry.
I specify “in reasonable doses” because the guilt signal, as all parents know, can misfire—it can be more extreme than the situation calls for, or can happen when it’s not justified (see: me bursting into postpartum tears when I realized we’d forgotten to turn on the baby monitor and, despite the fact that the baby was still sleeping, was flooded with guilt that we could have missed it if he’d woken up).
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