Could Your Phone Be Making You a Bad Parent?


by Sarah Maber |
Updated on

Caught up in the latest gossip doing the rounds? Stuck to your phone? Time to stop texting and start connecting with your child, says Sarah Maber

It’s Monday and I’m just home from a toddler gym class with my two-year-old son. I’m twitchy as I’ve been without email access for three hours and urgently need to check my messages. So, I bring out the big guns – Buzz Lightyear and Batman – to buy myself some time on the iPad. Without realising it, I’m involved in a classic case of phubbing – snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention. My son plays while I check my inbox. But, after 10 minutes, noise levels are up. He’s bored. Instead of closing my iPad, I make Batman climb the sofa with one hand (in what I hope is a captivating rescue mission) while I carry on scrolling Facebook. Unimpressed, my son throws himself on my lap, whacks his head on my chair, and ends up in tears. Not my finest parenting hour.

Even at age two, you know when you’re being snubbed because someone’s too busy looking at their phone – or being phubbed.

Now part of modern life, yes, it’s irritating, but lots of us do it. A recent YouGov survey revealed 27% of British adults answer their phone in the middle of a face-to-face conversation. It’s not surprising, then, that a ‘Stop Phubbing’ campaign has gone viral, with even über-connected Facebook users – 25,000 of them – demanding an end to it. However, if anyone’s likely to find themselves multi-tasking, it’s a busy mum.

While it’s annoying to realise your partner isn’t smiling at   your sparkling conversation over dinner, but at a joke on Twitter, the consequences of phone snubbing your child are more significant. It could be risky to have only half an eye on an adventurous toddler, plus there are psychological issues, too.

 Why Your Baby Needs You To Take A Screen Break

‘When we look at social interactions between parents and babies in the first year of life, there are lots of subtle things going on that are key to development – body language, gestures and fleeting looks,’ says Dr Nicola Yuill, senior lecturer in psychology at Sussex University. ‘A kind of development called intersubjectivity, it’s based on how you and your baby are tuned into each other, and helps form the basis for emotional connections and future relationships. But it’s hard to do if you’re always on your phone.’ Part of language development involves teaching your child how conversations are formed, and the different responses to various styles of question. ‘You need to be paying attention to give a response that fits with what your child has said, or done if he’s not talking yet,’ says Nicola. In other words, it’s not enough to glance up from your phone and say, ‘That’s nice,’ when your child waddles across the room to show you a toy or fits a shape into a jigsaw. Emotional and cognitive development depends on you making a proper connection with him.

Being only half-present with your child can also make him more likely to act up when he’s craving attention.

Being only half-present with your child can also make him more likely to act up when he’s craving attention. ‘Because he feels excluded and it’s harder for him to talk to you, he’ll rely on being less easy to ignore,’ says parenting coach Noël Janis-Norton. ‘Your child may be more likely to push the boundaries to see at what point he gets your attention.’

Being constantly connected doesn’t do our stress levels any favours, either. ‘People who are always online are likely to have difficulties with memory, as the brain needs time to store information,’ says internet psychologist Graham Jones. ‘If you’re constantly plugged in, there’s no gap for your brain to do that processing.’ With most daily tasks, you can engage with your child while you do them, but technology tends to absorb us and we don’t share it with our children. As a result, they view us as distant.

Ditch Your Phone Habit

But, while we all need to stay connected to the outside world, there are easy ways to wean yourself off phubbing – not least by recognising you’ll get more benefits from giving screen time your full attention, too. ‘Instead of spending all day doing a bit of emailing here or a bit of Facebook there, lump it all together and do 30 minutes of social media in the evening, for example,’ says Graham. ‘You’ll actually feel more satisfied. Set times for checking emails, too – say, twice a day, at 9am and 9pm.’

And try organising a family schedule that works for you. ‘Children like routine as it makes them feel more stable,’ says Graham. So, let your child have half an hour of tech time in the afternoon – and make sure they understand that, in the evening, it’s tech time for Mum and Dad.

The New Way to use tech

Flexibility is also important. For many parents, checking their tablet or phone is a way of staying connected to a grown-up world after a day spent playing Octonauts. ‘We don’t want to acknowledge that, as much as we love our children, it can be boring looking after them, and sometimes you need to engage with something that’s fun for you,’ says Noël. ‘There’s no need to feel guilty if you zone out occasionally, just as long as your phone isn’t always just inches away.’ The fact is, even if your toddler isn’t consciously aware that you’re phone snubbing him, he’ll still feel the effects.

For many parents, checking their tablet or phone is a way of staying connected to a grown-up world after a day spent playing Octonauts

Plus, he’ll be learning from your behaviour. ‘He’ll be more likely to grab your phone or whine for the tablet if you’re permanently attached to it,’ says Noël. ‘He’ll be getting the message that this is a device worth fighting for.’

The next time I need to draft an email, I wait for my son’s nap rather than recruit Batman. I realise that, not only do I get it done faster, but also that I have a tendency to overstress the urgency of tech-related tasks. Usually, when I hear that familiar ping as a message arrives on my phone, I tell myself I ‘need’ to deal with it now. Actually, it can normally wait. My son, on the other hand, is growing up fast, and I don’t want to miss it.

Are you guilty of phubbing your toddler? Let us know in the comments box below.

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