Are mobile devices hurting parent-child relationships?

Yellow Phone





‘Mum I can’t believe you are using your phone at the table when you never allowed us to use our game boys at the table!’

‘Oh sorry! Yes but…I am not playing here…I just need to check something.’


My daughter is right. When handheld video games appeared in the early 90’s children loved them but they were addictive and we had to set up rules. Rule number one was: no Game Boys at the table (well, except at the end of the meal at the restaurant – after paper, pencils and card games had lost the children’s interest). Game Boys have since been replaced by mobile phones and tablets and it is no longer only children who get totally engrossed by their electronic devices… I, for one, have realised that the challenge of addiction is stronger than I imagined and you may have recognised yourself in the above scenario?

Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children While Dining in Restaurants‘ was the subject of a recent study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.  The concern is a lack of attention given to children, the potential consequences on their well being and the long term impact on the parent-child relationship.  The responses of the children to the lack of interaction by the adult in charge were interesting. It showed that when in the presence of an adult using a mobile phone, some children are able to entertain themselves, some just remain passive and that some act out and test limits in order to attract attention. It also showed that when interrupted, the adults often lashed out more harshly than necessary.

“When you are texting or answering email, the part of your brain that is engaged is the ‘to do’ part, where there is also a sense of urgency to get the task accomplished, a sense of time pressure. So we are much more irritable when interrupted.” says Boston psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair.

Mobile devices are a new cultural phenomena. They are here to stay and we have to learn to live with them. We also have to be aware of the impact of the message we give when we use our phone in a social setting.  “We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, or any ping that may interrupt our time with them,” says Steiner-Adair.

I believe this message applies to children or adults alike. How often have you felt relegated to secondary degree of importance when your friend, your spouse or your child answers the phone or sends a text in the middle of a conversation with you? Let’s be honest, it hurts, but we are adults and we can understand the potential urgency of an incoming message.

Children, on the other hand, learn by imitation. By watching us they learn how to interact, how to have conversations, how to express their feelings and validate their emotions. They learn how to behave and how to conduct themselves in social situations. Based on the quality of the interaction with their parents they make decisions about themselves that will impact them for life:

‘When Dad stares at his smartphone while we are having dinner it probably means that I am boring and not worthy of his interest’.

‘When Mum has a long phone conversation with her friend while she is pushing my pram she indicates that she would probably prefer to be with her friend and doesn’t really like spending time with me’.

The list of faux-pas is long. We can all try to be more thoughtful when we use our devices around our children. Let’s ask ourselves:  “Do I really need to read that sms right now? Can it wait?”  Use it briefly if it can’t wait. A brief explanation of why we have to answer that message urgently will reassure our children that we are not ignoring them for something more important than them.

Pediatrician Dr Claire McCarthy admits she is addicted to her smartphone but is trying to get the balance right with her family by making meal times phone-free zones.

We could all create a list of phone-free zones (and stick it on our fridge as daily reminder).  No phones allowed – be mindful of the present moment – when….

– feeding Baby:  babble with her, talk to her about the food and how well she holds her spoon.

– taking Toddler to the park:  count the birds together, teach him new words, help him interact with other children.

– pushing Son on the swing:  watch his happy face, laugh with him.

– listening to Child who has just come home from school and has so much to tell you right now (but nothing left to say later when you might be more available).

– shopping with your teen: help him/her choose the all perfect outfit even if it takes longer than expected!

– eating in a restaurant: talk about the meal, life and the universe…Play a card game while waiting to be served.

I recently learned that our local Health Spa imposes a 10pm internet curfew to their overnight guests and I am pondering weather to install this in my own home!

Mobile devices are not all bad, on the contrary! Children are very savvy at finding fun facts, Apps and games and we have shared many great moments together as a family watching entertaining YouTube videos or looking at photos and updates from friends or even checking word definitions for that scrabble game we were playing.  All together around one device. Recommended!

Most importantly though we must work on being fully present in the moment when we spend time with our children and give them our full attention. It is that feeling of being the most important thing in their parents life (and they are!) that will give our children the self worth indispensable to developing self esteem, confidence, happiness and independence.


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