Parents are struggling to disconnect from their phones and spend quality time with their kids.
“It’s so common nowadays to see parents on their phones while with their kids. Kids do notice this,” says Phil O’Donnell, psychologist and clinical director of the Intensive Psychiatric Services program at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Most people have probably seen parents on their phones while at the park, in restaurants, or pushing a stroller. Does this have a negative effect on family communication and kids’ well- being? O’Donnell says yes.
Phones are a part of modern American life now, according to O’Donnell, and even the most well-intentioned, loving parents struggle to manage their usage. “Phones allow people to be connected and accessible at all times so it creates the expectation and feeling that you should be responsive at all times,” he says. Although it is easy to be on the phone, it’s important to monitor phone usage and create time for face-to-face interactions with kids.
O’Donnell works in the Intensive Services Unit at Children’s, which is the inpatient and Partial Hospitalization Program for kids experiencing acute psychiatric crises. Surprisingly, phones do come up in his work. “I work with families where communication has broken down and parents don’t seem engaged, so we talk about setting aside a certain amount of time every day to have positive interactions and limit the amount of time on phones.”
These positive face-to-face interactions teach kids good eye contact and communication skills. Kids also begin to trust they can come to their parents to talk about things. According to O’Donnell, if kids come to parents hoping to share something and are turned away, they are less likely to come to them again in the future. Kids may overcompensate or seek attention elsewhere, likely causing behavioral problems.
Of 10 fourth-graders at Swigert and Westerly Creek elementary schools in Stapleton, eight say their parents spend time on their phones in the evening when they come home from school. Rude, annoying, and distracting are some of the words they use to describe their feelings toward their parents’ phone usage.
“When I’m trying to tell her something and someone calls, I know I can’t share it anymore.”
“I don’t really like it sometimes when my mom’s work calls. Sometimes I will be talking to my mom about certain stuff and she has to talk on the phone. I don’t really like it.”
“Sometimes my mom’s phone is just like ding ding ding.”
“I ask my dad to play football and he’s on the phone and says, “Hold on one minute.” And then 20 minutes later he’s still at it.”
Of the 10 fourth-graders, a few say their families establish times without devices, but that means no devices for the kids; their parents don’t disconnect. All the students say they have only seen their parents turn off their phones on an airplane, in church, or at a movie theater. They say it makes them nervous when their parents text and drive, and they’ve tried to tell them to stop.
When asked how their parents would react if they had to disconnect from their phones, one student stays, “My mom would freak out. Our phones were broken a couple weeks ago and all she did was sleep.”
Disconnecting can be difficult when jobs require 24/7 responses. O’Donnell encourages setting appropriate expectations with bosses, colleagues, friends and family. “When we respond to texts, posts, anything immediately and make phone calls at all hours when we should be engaging with family that creates an environment where it’s OK to reach out at any time because you expect a response.” Parents can be proactive and let people know, “I may not respond immediately in the evening because I am spending time with my family, but I will respond later.”
For many, phones have become such a common part of life, it’s easy to pick up a phone and look at Facebook or e-mail without even being aware. O’Donnell suggests keeping a phone log to monitor your usage, much like a food log during a diet. “You can miss so much in a moment of being distracted on your phone. So much happens in your child’s life in just one moment if you observe.”