Recently, my 2-year-old son has started this new habit. He walks up to where I’m sitting, and he pulls on my arm. Specifically, he pulls on the wrist that is attached to the hand that is attached to my smartphone, and he asks me to get up.
If I’m being perfectly honest, it frustrates me. I don’t feel like I’m constantly on my phone, and typically I am trying to accomplish something for work when he interrupts. It wasn’t until more recently that I even considered that my distraction might be the problem—I kind of assumed he was just being a 2-year-old.
I’ve worked from home for four years now. Even though I do have childcare pretty regularly, I also do a lot of multitasking while my kids play or sleep. I’ve worked really hard to try to maintain some kind of balance, to draw lines between work and home, but that hasn’t always gone well.
It wasn’t until my son began this habit of pulling on my arm that I realized this might be one of those seasons that isn’t as in balance as it should be. It wasn’t until I noticed how much frustration I felt being pulled away from my email or texts that I became open to the idea that I might not be doing the best job keeping the lines between motherhood and work in check, and that I might be letting tech become an unhealthy distraction.
Redefining Balance in a Digital World
When I first started to research tech distraction and parenting, I was nervous. My expectation was that I was going to find a mountain of evidence that I needed to draw hard lines between work and home. I expected I was going to walk away from my research believing I only had one choice—to give up stay-at-home parenting altogether and hire full-time care so I wasn’t so distracted by my tech devices around my kids.
This wasn’t what I found to be true. Instead, I found experts are calling not for a complete absence of technology in family life, but a smarter, healthier approach to using and talking about technology. They’re calling for more intentional integration.
The Problem with Tech Distraction
Before I can get serious about changing the way our family approaches tech, I know I need to get clear on what problems tech-distraction creates for the modern family. Knowledge is power, right? In this case, the hope is that information will motivate lasting change in our family.
There is a lot of research on screen time and how it impacts children, but the body of research on parental use of screens and how it impacts family is still developing. What I find interesting about the research that does exist is its logical progression.
First, there is research confirming that children are more likely to act out when their parents are distracted by tech. Specifically, a study published in Child Development reported that when parent-child interactions are frequently interrupted by technology, parents are more likely to report that their children have behavioral problems.
Another study published in the journal Pediatrics observed families in a fast food restaurant, making note of their smartphone use and how it appeared to affect their interactions with their children. Researchers noted that 40 of the 55 observed parents used their smartphones during their meal. When left to entertain themselves (because of parental engrossment in technology), children were more likely to seek out their parents’ attention.
“Parents who are distracted by their smartphones are more likely to see kids misbehaving because kids will have to misbehave in order to get their attention,” explains Shane Gregory Owens, PhD, a board-certified psychologist who works with families and young adults. “Parents with kids who learn that the fastest route to attention is misbehavior will end up with kids who misbehave.”
In this same study, we see another consequence of tech-distraction—parents who appeared to be very distracted by their phones were more likely to respond harshly when their children acted out or tried to get their attention.
Most impactful, perhaps, is research on living in a digital world sponsored by AVG Antivirus. In 2015, they surveyed parents and children on family tech use and found that over half the children felt their parents were on a screen too often. Thirty-two percent of these children said the amount of time their parents spend on their phones makes them feel they are not important to their family.
Dealing with Our Tech Fascination
It is worth noting that many parents, like myself, are not unaware of the problem of technology in our lives. In the study mentioned above, 52 percent of parents admitted they were on their phones too often.
“My biggest concern … is that they’re really modeling behaviors that they’re not actually interested in their children picking up,” says Colleen Carroll, doctor of education and self-proclaimed screen freedom warrior. “It is not helping them as a parent to have credibility, and they lose the respect of their children.”
In my own life, and what I suspect is the case in many families, using tech less is easier said than done. I am drawn to social media when I am bored, lonely, or simply exhausted. Being on a screen provides me with a positive experience that keeps me returning again and again, even when I’ve committed to using tech less.
For this reason, dealing with our tech fascination just might be the first step to a more balanced approach to technology and family life. If you find yourself compulsively reaching for your phone, Carroll offers some practical steps you can take to make phones less interesting.
“Almost all smartphones have the option to make the screens black and white instead of color,” she says. “Color saturation is one of the main addictive qualities of devices today.”
Turning your phone to grayscale could be your first step toward becoming less fascinated with your phone. For those interested in making this switch, it’s an option usually found in the accessibility section of the general settings menu.
Next, permanently turn off all notifications on the apps on your phone. That way, you have to go out of your way to check emails, social media, or gaming apps.
Lastly, she suggests protecting periods of time devoted to other things, like work or time with family, by turning your phone on airplane mode. It’s a simple way we can all disconnect for a bit for the good of our mental health and our relationships.
Changing the Family Culture
The goal of a healthy relationship with technology is not to give it up completely. Disconnecting entirely isn’t just impractical, it’s impossible for most.
“The idea that any of us is going to be able to be very strict about work versus family time, at least right now, it doesn’t seem possible,” says Owens.
And I could see this clear division in my life too. Work all day coming home to consume media that will hold me over until the next working day. Rinse and repeat. I guess that’s the true reason why I dont feel like I have any semblance of a work-life balance
— Elsa Asri (@elsaasri) July 27, 2018
Instead, Owens encourages parents to be very intentional about how they use tech at home. Parents who hope to see a positive change in the family dynamic surrounding technology need to step back and take a look at the family culture as a whole, according to Carroll. This can be accomplished by clearly defining your family values and then making concrete changes to center schedules and routines around them.
“Families have success by creating designated work times where everybody can be on devices at some point,” she says. “For some families, it is between 7 and 9 p.m.; for other families, it’s more like 4 in the afternoon and 6:30.”
This time can be used in a way that works best for the family. This is the time when parents can catch up on work, kids can complete computer-based homework, and families can enjoy entertainment technology together.
“The most important tool that any parent has is modeling the behavior they want to see in their kids.”
—Shane Owens, PhD, psychologist
“Then there is an agreed upon shut down time so that everybody is also following that, and then they can do the other helpful activities that are really necessary on a nightly basis,” Carroll says, suggesting reading, bedtime routines, or even watching a show together as a family.
Building this schedule or routine is the perfect time for a formal discussion as a family about what the family values most and how they plan to make that a priority over screen time.
“The family should get together and say, ‘Here’s why we don’t spend five or six hours a night on screens or playing video games,’” she says, providing outdoor time, reading, or socializing together as activities that could be scheduled in place of mindless screen time.
These two suggestions are part of a larger point that both Owens and Carroll stress as important. Parents need to explicitly talk about technology with their children. Children will make assumptions about their family values based on what they see and hear from parents, and if we don’t talk about why we’re not devoting our lives to screens, kids will likely get caught up in being connected.
“The most important tool that any parent has is modeling the behavior they want to see in their kids,” says Owens. “So parents want kids to pay attention to them when they’re talking, so if your kids talks to you and you are on your phone, you put down your phone and you look at your child and pay attention to them until they’re done talking.”
Additionally, he recommends wrapping up this interaction by clearly spelling out that you are going to go back to work, but that you plan to spend time together once your allotted work time is over.
What does this mean for me and my family dynamic? That’s a question I’m still exploring, beginning with talking with my spouse about how we want to start scheduling in screen-free family time on a daily basis. As someone who has grown into adulthood on tech, these changes don’t feel easy, but I believe they are worth the improvements to our quality of life and the relationships we have with one another.