How to encourage parents to have a healthier relationship with their smartphones

I was having a lovely chat to a kindergarten teacher this week.  It was lovely anyway, until we got to talking about work.  This beautiful lady shocked me when she told me, that often when her little charges draw ‘Happy Family’ drawings at school, Mum and Dad are not holding hands with each other or their kids.  Their hands are full – holding their phones!  These young children with their astute powers of observation find that along with two eyes, two ears, five fingers on two hands and several articles of clothing, the phone is a constant in their mental image of their loved ones.

Apparently our young children are not too happy about those ‘connection distractors’ either.  In a survey of 1000 American children aged 4-18 years conducted by psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair (1), 70% of children felt their parents spent too much time on their phones and emails.  The children used words such as ‘sad, mad, angry and lonely’ when describing their feelings about their parents and their devices, indicating that they may be feeling ignored and not important or interesting enough to keep their parents’ attention.  What a devastating conclusion!

There is endless research on the negative effects of technology on the health and development of babies and children: obesity, emotional development, language, diabetes, coordination, sleep, behaviour, cognitive development, addiction, muscle tone, vision, attention, aggression, posture, play, empathy, violence, social interaction and on and on.  The professional advice – straight across the board – is for parents to limit screen time for children.  But as parents we struggle with this advice.  One reason is that we don’t want to be mean and keep our children from something they love doing.  Another is that is gives us a bit of time to do what we need to do, whether that is cooking or checking our emails.  80.4% of parents who took part in a survey in the UK (2) felt that technology was good for their children and their development.  23% of parents wanted to make sure their children were not left behind on the technological advances.  Other common reasons are: wanting the opportunity for their children to connect with peers through social media and wanting them to feel part of a friend group – who all want to play the X-box.  35% of parents in the survey used technology as a convenience.

It is telling that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated their public recommendations on screen time for children, acknowledging that their restrictive advice was becoming obsolete.  Instead they now recommend parents to watch the shows with their children, play the video/XBox games with their children and have tech-free zones and regular tech breaks.

Maybe the most important advice we can provide the parents in our practices to further a healthier relationship with screens for their kids: Limit your own use of screens, talk and connect with your children, play non-tech games with them, take them outside and give plenty of opportunities for unstructured play.  I expect this is as big a challenge as getting the kids off their devices!

(1) https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/04/21/304196338/for-the-childrens-sake-put-down-that-smartphone

(2) https://www.vertbaudet.co.uk/blog/how-do-you-entertain-your-children-introducing-the-modern-vs-traditional-campaign/?utm_source=AWIN&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_term=78888&cmpid=AFF0020

(3) ‘Beyond ‘turn it off’: How to advise families on media use’ Brown et al, Sept 2015