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Using phones around our kids: Revisiting the research
Plus, a special audio post!
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Hi there, sapiens! We’ve got an extra special post today. Dr. Cara Goodwin recently invited me to share the latest research on using phones around our children with the friendly people over at Parenting Translator (if you happen to be one of those friendly people, hello! Welcome!). This gave me the chance to revisit and revise my previous writing on the topic, and—even more exciting—record my first ever *audio post* for Dr. Goodwin’s podcast. You can read or listen to the full post below.
I’m always looking for ways to improve Techno Sapiens, so please let me know what you think. Do you like the audio format? Do you want the option of listening to future posts? Do you hope never to hear the sound of my voice ever again? Please weigh in!
Listen to the audio version of this post here:
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10 min read
I’ve spent the past 12 years researching the effects of smartphones and social media on kids. As a result, I’d assumed that when I had kids of my own, I’d be well-prepared to navigate the challenges that come along with managing screen time.
Well, I assumed wrong.
My first son was born two years ago, and one particular challenge quickly arose with newfound urgency: managing my own screen time.
I’d be playing with my son—building block towers, making faces in nearby mirrors, dropping small, triangular objects into boxes through small, triangular holes—when I’d notice my phone light up with a notification from across the playmat. Often, I’d find myself unable to resist the temptation. I’d grab it, almost involuntarily, and spend a few minutes tapping away.
Soon, the scenario would end exactly as you might imagine. A set of tiny, chubby fingers grabbing repeatedly at the phone. A forgotten block tower.
A very guilty parent.
And so, I did what I often do in times of uncertainty: I turned to the research.
How bad is it, actually, to be on our phones around our kids? Does it lead to negative outcomes? Should we feel guilty about it?
Here’s what I found.
The short version
I began my 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.
First things first: the benefits of using our phones
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 monotony that can surround childcare tasks.
For parents of young kids, phones can be a source of emotional and informational support. In a recent study of 296 parents of children ages 3 to 6:
75% of parents said they use their devices to find in-the-moment parenting strategies
79% said 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
For infants, 97% of parents at least sometimes use media while feeding their infant (breast or bottle). Research suggests phone use during feedings can provide benefits like: distraction (i.e., from pain or frustration), relief from boredom, connection to family or other mothers, productivity, and access to resources.
So, it’s fine then?
Not exactly. Clearly, there are very valid reasons why parents use their devices around their kids, but as we dig further into the research, a more complex picture emerges. Sigh.
Researchers love to come up with clever names for everyday experiences that, probably, don’t need names. I thus present to you: technoference.
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.
Technoference may be a problem for a few reasons. When we’re distracted by our phones, we’re less “responsive” to our child’s needs. We don’t notice, for example, when our infants are done feeding, or when our toddlers are shouting MAMA! WANT TO SPIN IN CIRCLES! and careening dangerously close to the edges of our coffee table. We might interact with our kids less, which could impact language development, and we might show delayed, inappropriate, or even harsh responses to them, which could impact our relationships with them.
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) and at least one longitudinal study 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. But these studies aren’t particularly helpful, since we don’t know the direction of effects—maybe parents who are already more stressed, for example, are more likely to report technoference and child behavior problems.
So, this is where we turn to the experimental studies. These studies can give us more accurate information on potential short-term effects of technoference. This is also where my hopes of full parent guilt exoneration really went down the tube.
First, 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.
What does this have to do with using our phones around our children? You probably know where this is going.
At least 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.
So, what does this all mean?
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. 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. 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 judgment 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).
Let’s ditch (some of) the guilt
Since becoming a parent, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the idea of guilt. When we talk about parent guilt, so often what we hear is 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 doses, 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 phone notifications, to prompt us to stay mindful of the ways our phones are getting in the way of 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?
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