- Around 50 percent of Americans feel dependent on their phones.
- Distracted parenting can lead to lower emotional intelligence in children and more agitated parents.
- Divided attention also leads parents to miss bids for connection, which can be harmful to their relationship.
I’m in good company. I just had a "phone addiction" relapse. It was the end of the school year, so I was burning on all cylinders: end-of-year reports, graduation, and obligatory middle school overnight trip to DC. I found myself constantly checking emails on my phone and then scrolling mindlessly, not fully invested in my parent or partner time.
Around half of Americans report feeling dependent on their screens. For many, that means hours of screen time every day. If someone you love has complained about your screen usage, you can’t seem to reduce your screen time, you feel agitated when your phone’s not readily available, or your time spent scrolling keeps increasing, you might have a problem.
I wouldn't be so concerned if it were just me scrolling mindlessly solo on a deserted island. But overusing our phones can have some real adverse effects on our relationships and on our children’s development. As Erika Christakis points out in a spot-on Atlantic article, “More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.”
It’s a common refrain for parents to talk about their kids’ screen time. Parents worry and fret about the impact "Cocomelon" is having on their little ones. Christakis says talking about children’s tech time is a smokescreen to avoid talking about the real problem: our own out-of-control phone obsession and the divided attention it leads to.
Here are three reasons to "put your damn phone down" when you’re spending time with your family.
1. Lower Emotional Intelligence
In a previous article, I described how relationships consist of what John Gottman calls bids. Basically, bids are words and actions that aim for connection, and how those bids are received is a pretty good predictor of the health of our relationships.
If my daughter says, “Look at my mermaid hair, Daddy!” and I use my improv tools to go with it, I’m strengthening our relationship. Improv’s “Yes, And” principle works well here. Maybe I tell her, “Your mermaid hair is beautiful, and it looks like you’re growing mermaid scales!” Or I could try, “You’re right! That is fetching mermaid hair. I have unicorn hair that I’m pretty proud of.” If I go along with my daughter and keep adding details, we’re playing and connecting. Wins all around.
Now, let’s imagine I’m scrolling through TikTok. Phones lead to what’s called divided attention. In essence, it leads us to not be fully present in the scenes that are unfolding with our children. This could mean we react without all the information or miss those precious bids as they arise.
It turns out that catching those bids and giving our kids our undivided attention is important for their development. Now, I’m not talking about undivided attention all the time. Kids need to play on their own, and parents need some intentional breaks throughout the day. Think quality over quantity.
Being buried in our phones is leading to copious amounts of low-quality time with our kids and loads of divided attention. Kids need that quality time spent volleying with their caregivers. It helps them develop their language skills early on and leads to better emotional intelligence scores.
Bottom Line: Ditch the phone and give your kids quality undivided attention. I’ve started storing my phone in another room or hiding it in a backpack to more intentionally connect with my girls.
Start small. Try 15 minutes and see how it goes. Also, it helps to clearly communicate with your children. “Daddy is putting his phone away because it’s distracting for him. I want to give you my undivided attention for 30 minutes, and then I’m going to load the dishwasher.”
2. Snippier Parenting
Another reason to ditch the phone is that it can make us snippier. Though "phone addiction" is not a recognized diagnosis, there are some parallels with other kinds of addictions—one of which is that when we don’t get our fix or when something kills our buzz, we may get mad or agitated.
Let’s go back to the mermaid hair example. Let’s say I was sending an email when my daughter bragged about her mermaid hair. My response is probably going to be, “Hold on a second” or “Daddy just has to finish this email.”
The more snippiness our kids are receiving, the more likely they are to internalize these failed bids and either act out or retreat. I’ve seen this firsthand. “Hold on a second” quickly leads to full-on acrobatics off the sofa. They’re going to get my attention one way or another because they need that connection. They need those accepted bids!
Bottom Line: Try an experiment. Leave your phone in another room while you play with your kids for an hour. Then compare that to an hour spent scrolling in proximity to your kids. I think you’ll discover that phoneless time is of higher quality. You’ll be less snippy and more present.
If my children are playing well together, I’ll pick up a book and tell them I’m going to read while they play. Reading an old-school book doesn’t have the same compulsive qualities as scrolling, so when you get interrupted to tie shoes or fetch water bottles, you probably won't be as snippy. Plus, it’s great to model reading for your kids.
3. Miss a Moment, Miss a Lot
Finally, ditching our smartphones leads to a whole bunch of not-to-be-missed, memorable moments. This week, I’ve been intentional with my phone and kept it out of the room, which has led to some super fun scenes.
For example, I was playing blocks with the girls and noticed they were losing interest. Without thinking, I asked, “Who wants to play ‘Watch your fingers’?”
This was a total improv moment. “Watch your fingers” is not a game I’ve ever heard of. They got excited and said they wanted to play, so I started making up the rules as I went.
Everyone gets 10 blocks. You build a tall tower with the blocks, then put your hands down on either side of your tower. Then, while leaving your hands on the ground, you take turns trying to knock over other people’s towers while shouting “Watch your fingers!” The game was a hit, and the girls have asked to play it all week.
Undivided parental attention leads to moments like this. We work through the boredom or the agitation and hit the jackpot with fun moments of connection now and then. And just like the lottery slogan says, “You’ve got to play to win.”
It’s like that with parenting. We’ve got to put our phones down and give our kids our undivided attention. Not all the time. Not constantly. But sometimes. Because that’s when we catch those bids, learn about our children, and connect in rich, meaningful ways.
But whatever you do, don’t forget to watch those fingers!
Carrie Shrier, M. S. U. E. (2023, February 23). The dangers of distracted parenting. MSU Extension. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/the_dangers_of_distracted_parenting
Cell phone addiction: Stats and signs. King University Online. (2022, September 19). https://online.king.edu/news/cell-phone-addiction/
Christakis, E. (2022, February 14). The dangers of distracted parenting. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers-of-dis…
Nabi, R. L., & Wolfers, L. N. (2022). Does digital media use harm children’s emotional intelligence? A parental perspective. Media and Communication, 10(1), 350-360.
Radesky, J. S., Kistin, C. J., Zuckerman, B., Nitzberg, K., Gross, J., Kaplan-Sanoff, M., ... & Silverstein, M. (2014). Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics, 133(4), e843-e849.