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Don’t Let Your Phone Get Between You and Your Child

You’ve made it to the playground. Now to find a shady bench so you can scroll through Twitter or finally answer that email while your kid hits the swings. This might be your first relaxing moment of the day. But researchers have another name for it: technoference.
When your kid looks up from the sandbox and sees you staring at your phone, “they’re going to realize that to Mom or Dad, that device is more important than whatever they’re doing,” says Kristelle Lavalle of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “And the child internalizes that.”
Don’t bury your phone in the sand just yet, though. For one thing, that’s simply not possible for most of us in this day and age. With a few careful tweaks to how you use your devices, you could give a boost to your kid’s development, behavior, and relationship with you.
Research has shown that technological distractions make parents less engaged and responsive, which can interfere with learning: For example, two-year-olds were less likely to learn a new word from their moms when the lesson was interrupted by a phone call.
“Parents don’t speak as much to babies and young children when background screens are on,” says David Hill, a pediatrician and former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. When he talks to parents who are concerned about their baby’s language development, Hill asks whether the TV is on at home. “It doesn’t matter if [the baby’s] watching it. It matters if you’re watching it,” he says.
With a few careful tweaks to how you use your devices, you could give a boost to your kid’s development, behavior, and relationship with you.
Outside of the lab, researchers surreptitiously observed adults with younger children at fast-food restaurants around Boston. Caregivers who were highly absorbed in their devices often responded harshly to kids’ behaviors. Brigham Young University psychologist Sarah Coyne says that as parents ignore their kids in favor of their phones, kids may escalate bids for attention.
Even teenagers notice when parents tune out. Lavalle says that when her group at Boston Children’s Hospital talks to older children, “They’ll say they want their parents to actually put down their devices and pay attention to them.” In a survey of adolescents and young adults ages 10 to 20, Coyne found a similar sentiment. When participants reported that their parents were distracted by technology, “They felt less connected to their parents,” she says.
Even if kids don’t like how their parents use technology, they can’t help but see them as models. “If you have a family climate where it’s normal to ignore everyone around you,” Coyne says, “that definitely sends a huge message.”

How to create a new normal

There are simple ways to create new technology norms in your home (that don’t involve a shock bracelet). First, put the phone down. Better yet, put it in another room. “Getting the phone out of your line of sight is very helpful,” Hill says.
Next, see if you can keep the screens away during dinner — or breakfast, or lunch. When families commit to eating one meal a day together, “The psychological benefits, not only for the parents, but really for the children, are almost immeasurable,” Lavalle says. Adding a device into the mix, she says, can defeat the purpose: actual conversation and connection.
Until you take a break from your phone, you may not realize how much you’ve been using it. A 2019 pilot study of parents with young children showed that they checked their phones an average of 67 times per day, but most thought they did so much less. Apps can help you track your phone time. Coyne — who, with five kids at home, works hard to minimize technoference — likes Screen Time for iPhones and ActionDash for Android.
She also groups her other phone apps into categories, one of which she labeled “time suck.” This small trick helps keep her honest, Coyne says: “I literally have to push the words ‘time suck’ to open up Instagram.”
Enlisting your kids can be another helpful hack. Hill recommends setting a goal about how often you’re comfortable checking your phone — say, once an hour, for five minutes — and telling your family. If you slip up, your kids will be happy to let you know, Hill says. “There’s no better way to get held to a promise than to make it to a kid.”
Of course, you’ll have to make exceptions. But when something urgent comes up, Lavalle says, don’t ignore your child. Instead, explain that you need to answer an email from your boss or take an important phone call. You can use the opportunity to model mindful technology use. “Work is important!” she says. “We don’t need to hide that.”
We also don’t need to make technology the enemy. For many busy parents, the flexibility and contact offered by a smartphone is what allows them to leave the house or office and make that trip to the playground in the first place.
Even technoference might have upsides in some situations, says Coyne. She’s doing a study now to explore the question. “Let’s say that I’m crazy stressed out at home,” she says. “My kids are being terrible, the house is a mess, I’m losing my crap.” Taking a quick break to connect with a friend or check Facebook can help a parent regain balance and take on the situation more
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If you find yourself doing that, she adds, don’t beat yourself up. “I think that a lot of parents do feel really guilty about their own phone use,” Coyne says. “Cut yourself some slack as well.”

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