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Excessive mobile phone use... for parents

A couple of months ago, while reading a teacher’s reflections in the weekly planner, I was shocked and saddened by what I read. The teacher described a Leader In Me lesson about good and bad habits that people have. Students opened up about some of their own habits, but also discussed the habits of adults, including their parents, leading to a discussion about the amount of time that parents spend on their phones. Students were moved to tears as they shared how, as they try to tell stories about their day at school, their parents are preoccupied with social media, texting or games.

The class then discussed how to practice Habit 1: Be Proactive, without being impolite. The teacher provided students with a strategy that utilized the IPC Personal Goal of Respect, by modelling how students could talk to their parents using I-messages such as, “I would like it if you could listen to stories about my day.” or “I would like it if you could play with me.”

As shocked as I was, this is certainly not a unique situation. According to recent estimates, the average mobile user checks his or her phone 150 times a day (that’s every six and a half minutes). Why so often? A Wall Street Journal article cites a phenomenon called FOMO, or "Fear Of Missing Out". Adults, as well as children who regularly use social media feel the urge to frequently check their phone, laptop, tablet or other device to ensure that they are not missing out online discussions amongst friends, new pictures, interesting news, gossip, etc. However, considering the explanations of the distraught students, what are parents really missing out on?

A recent article on NPR featured a book about parenting written by psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair called The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. Steiner-Adair found that when parents focus on their digital world first — ahead of their children — there can be deep emotional consequences for the child. She says, "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, any ping that may interrupt our time with them."

I must admit, as a parent of a 3-year old, I am guilty of looking at my phone quite often while we are playing games together, relaxing on the couch, or while I’m putting her to bed. I’m always hit straight in the heart when she says, “Daddy, you’re not really playing.” or “Daddy, put down your phone and listen.”

So what can be done? I think, to a lot of us parents it simply comes down to discipline and self-control. A friend of mine who is also a father has a rule in his house. When you enter his front door, there is a basket in the entryway. When he and his wife come home, they put their phones in the basket, where they remain. It reminds me of the old cowboy movies in which, when someone enters a saloon, they need to hand in their guns to be stored behind the bar. For some, however, this may be too extreme.

A study out of the University of Washington and University of Michigan surveyed 249 families with children between the ages of 10 and 17 about how families navigate technology limits and expectations. Here are a few rules kids would set for their parents:

  • Set down your device, or close your screen when I’m talking to you. (The most common request from children.)

  • Moderate your online time. (Go outside and play applies to you, too.)

  • You can’t use the phone at mealtimes, either. (Practice what you preach.)

Simply put, the research suggests that clear and simple rules are the most successful

As this phase of the digital age is still in its infancy, it’s not completely clear how the amount of time we spend on our devices will affect our children long term. That being said, one thing should be clear to us as parents: If we have a fear of missing out on something, it should be a fear of missing out on building healthy relationships with our children.

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