When my niece wants to watch funny cat videos on YouTube, she retreats to a bedroom and hides under the covers. At 5, she knows that adults are concerned about her screen time. Meanwhile, my brother, sister-in-law, and I will likely be out in the living room, scrolling our phones. Though we'll banter about how my son is ignoring homework in favor of Minecraft while my niece is watching funny cats, we seem unable to stop ourselves from refreshing Instagram and checking texts.
This “pot, meet kettle” sort of hypocrisy begs the question: Are we too keyed up over our kids’ screen time when we should be checking our own tech addictions? How much screen time is too much for adults? And how do our habits (gulp) affect our kids’ behavior?
Phone, I Wish I Knew How To Quit You
A recent report from Time magazine estimates that adult screen time has shot up by as much as 60-80% over the last few years. The reassuring thing is if you're using your screen to read what’s happening in the world, watch a documentary, check in with the grandparents or, you know, work, that's all good, say the experts. The slippery slope seems to be if you are mindlessly scrolling at the expense of talking with your family or winding down for bed. In other words, if you are acting addicted to your phone.
My own super-minor adjustment has been fussing with my iPhone's controls to go into "Do Not Disturb" mode from 9:30 at night until 8:15 in the morning. I have become ritualistic about reading a book in bed before going to sleep. I also force myself to get dressed in the morning before checking for messages. But that's as far as I've gotten. I scroll or check the phone pretty much every 10 minutes between those times — and I know that the kids see me do it.
Your Screen Habits Might Explain Your Kids’ Bad Behavior
If nothing else makes you want to put down your phone, consider this: Your kids are more likely to misbehave when you ignore them in favor of your tech.
"There have been a couple of studies that watch parents get on their phone at the end of a meal — the kids start to act up," Cori Cross, MD, a pediatrician in Los Angeles, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a mother of three, tells Scary Mommy. "The children are trying to vie for the parents' attention. But the parents keep using their phones, and the kids' behavior gets worse and worse until the parents intervene. My takeaway, as a parent, is I try to make eye contact with my kids when they want my attention. If you're on the phone while they're finishing their ice cream, they feel that you're not paying attention to them. They may not say it, but they act differently."
Help Us, Doctor
Cross has a plan of action that I love: Putting adult phones away from 6 pm to 8 pm. She instituted it because her husband was having a hard time looking up: "With his phone away, the kids really have his presence for two hours. Then once they go to bed, he can get on it again." She says that friends and family instantly adjusted to the fact that no one in their house responds to messages in the evening. "It's freeing," admits Cross. "And it's great to know that now, if one of the kids is having a bad day, they have a stretch of time to talk and know they will be heard."
Her other tip is the one many of us already follow, which is no phone at the table. But her reason was jarring to me. "There was another study that showed that if a cell phone was present, even face down during an interaction, the conversation wouldn't get too serious. My takeaway, again, as a parent, is if I bring my phone to the table at dinner and I put it face down, it might stop my kids from talking to me about maybe somebody bullying them at school, or something that's bothering them,” she says. “That's not worth it to me."
But Cross is a pediatrician; surely there are some calls she has to take? She said yes, but she explains to the kids what she is doing if she jumps on the phone. "Sometimes we're working. We don't always have a choice. I think if you turn around to your kids and say, 'Hey, this is really important. I have to answer this right now,' it makes a difference, because we acknowledge the fact that we are actually going to have to ignore them while on the phone," Cross explains.
You Are, After All, Setting An Example
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a lot of pediatrician advice for kids' screen time. But the part that sticks out to me is "set a good example with your own safe and healthy screen habits."
We know that kids watch everything we do and then enrage us later by mimicking us. (Please see: procrastinating, swearing, staying up too late.) Says Cross, "You should try to do your less important stuff — surfing the internet, whatever — during the time when you're not trying to engage with them. Otherwise, they are going to do that back to you when they get a device of their own."
Consider yourself warned... and hopefully inspired.
Cori Cross, MD, a Los Angeles pediatrician and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics