Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Parents and Smartphones: A Healthy Mix?

Does parental smartphone use affect family time and stress levels?

Key points

  • Parental smartphone usage impacts family dynamics.
  • Mothers use more social media; fathers engage in more mobile gaming.
  • High parenting stress is linked to increased smartphone use, whether social media or mobile gaming.
  • Understanding smartphone use aids in balancing family life.

A new survey out says 64 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Which is interesting because, in a related survey, 100 percent of smartphones say they own an American. —Jimmy Fallon

In the digital age, the way we connect with each other is constantly evolving, especially with the new importance that smartphones play in our lives. And the smartphone revolution is only just beginning.

But what does this current fascination with smartphones mean for some of the most intimate relationships in our lives, including how parents interact with their children? A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media reveals some intriguing patterns when it comes to parents of young children and how they use their smartphones during the course of an average day.

Conducted by Brandon T. McDaniel of the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and his co-authors, the study is based on a recent survey of 183 families with young children around the age of three years and examined smartphone use by both parents. Along with looking at phone-related activities, such as texting, calling, using social media, and even mobile gaming, the researchers also examined what the parents themselves thought about their smartphone use and whether it cut into family time.

Of the 183 couples, the study collected data from 355 parents (179 mothers and 176 fathers from 172 families where both partners responded and 11 families where one partner responded). Parents averaged 32.32 years of age, while their children averaged around 2.89 years of age.

In this data, the researchers found distinct differences in how mothers and fathers use their phones. Mothers were more likely to spend over half an hour daily on social media, whereas fathers tended to dedicate the same amount of time to mobile gaming. There was also considerable variation among the study parents, with only one in four reporting spending more than an hour daily on the phone and half of all parents denying mobile game use.

One concerning finding from the study concerns the emotional toll that excessive phone use can have on parents. Of the mothers in the survey, 39.7 percent felt that their social media usage intruded on their family time, while only 16.5 percent of fathers felt the same. When it came to mobile gaming, however, there didn’t appear to be as much concern about it cutting into family time, regardless of gender.

Additionally, higher levels of parenting stress were linked to increased mobile gaming and the perception that social media and gaming were encroaching on family interactions. These insights suggest that smartphone use can sometimes interfere with how parents relate to their children. This interference seems to worsen when parents are under stress, highlighting the need for strategies that address the amount of time spent on phones and the purposes behind their use.

While this research has significant limitations, especially since it involved subjective measures of phone use and family stress, it does raise some intriguing questions about why mothers and fathers differ in terms of concern over smartphone use, cutting into family time. Since this reflects previous research into digital use, especially when it comes to mobile gaming, compulsive phone use may be a factor, regardless of gender. Though the study didn’t explore compulsive use, it is certainly something that can be addressed in future research.

Studies such as this one call for a deeper look into how parents can balance their digital use with their roles as parents, particularly when their children are toddlers. By understanding the context and reasons behind phone use, parents can find ways to reduce its interference with family life and foster healthier environments for their children to grow. And, given that the digital revolution is still in its very early stages, parents need to be aware that changes in technology can bring on new challenges that need to be faced. It’s also a reminder that being mindful of our screen time is not only beneficial for adults, but for the impressionable children watching and learning from their every move.


McDaniel, B. T., Ventura, A. K., & Drouin, M. (2024). Parent social media use and gaming on mobile phones, technoference in family time, and parenting stress.. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Romeo Vitelli Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today