Parents, put the phone down — after you read this

Plugged-in parents
A mother and son sit side-by-side using portable screens. A recent study indicates that parents spend about as much time plugged in to screens as their kids do.
(Getty Images / Hero Images)

OK, kids, a quick moment to gloat: As it turns out, it’s not just you; it’s us parents too. We just can’t stop staring at screens.

That’s the result of a new national survey suggesting that parents spend nine hours a day plugged into tech, with only an hour and a half of it dedicated to work and more than 80% focused on “personal screen media.”

And somehow, in an incredible disconnect, we think we are modeling good habits for our kids.

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To get a better idea of both the impact of such practices and the strategies to cultivate better tech habits for our families, and ourselves, I reached out to child psychologist Yalda Uhls and pediatrician Smita Malhotra — both are also moms navigating parenting in the digital age. Uhls works with Common Sense Media, which conducted the survey, and wrote “Media Moms and Digital Dads.” Malhotra runs her practice in Pasadena and writes about parenting.

Each answered separately via email. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

(And full disclosure: This was written while parenting. The irony of having to shoo my preschooler and kindergartner away wasn’t lost on my kids, who took great pleasure in their game of keeping mommy’s eyes off the screen.)  

Q: How can parents preach about appropriate media usage if they aren't practicing it themselves?

Yalda Uhls: ​I recommend that the entire family talks about their media use honestly and openly, letting the kids be part of creating the rules. An easy way to do it is to use a family media agreement. The agreement is primarily to help kids monitor their use; but if parents agree to many of the same rules, then kids are more likely to buy in (charging devices out of the bedroom, everyone having device-free time, for example device-free dinner, etc.)

​The other thing that is good to do is to narrate to kids what you are doing when you are using the computer for work. So if you are organizing a playdate for your child or returning an email for work, say “Daddy (or Mommy) is answering this work email and when I'm done, I'll be able to answer your question.” Kids don't know what we are doing when we are on our devices, so we have to help them realize that we use these devices as tools not as treats — most of the time.

Finally, guess what? Kids notice when we don't do what we tell them to do. There is no getting around that. You have to first set a good example. We are our kids first role model.

Smita Malhotra: Being too strict about limiting screen time in this day and age will most likely backfire. The more you restrict something, the more appealing it is to kids. We are currently living in a changing digital landscape where, in some instances, even homework involves screen time. So parents have to keep up with the times. Instead of looking for ways to restrict screen time, parents should instead see themselves as screen time mentors, guiding their children about healthy media use. 

First, understand that not all screen time is bad. There is a difference between passive and interactive screen time. By helping their child work through an interactive educational activity, parents can use this as an opportunity to bond with their child. So in this way, screen time becomes a positive experience for both parent and child.

Second, it is important to keep some areas and times as media-free zones. Both parents and children should avoid screens during mealtimes to encourage mindful eating and family bonding. Also, both parents and children should put away any devices at least one hour before bedtime so as not to interfere with sleep. In general, devices should be kept out of the bedroom. 

Finally, it is important to be flexible. Some particularly stressful or rainy days may involve a little more screen time than others and that is OK. I think it is important for kids to see their parents as human too, understanding that sometimes things do not always go as planned.

Q: But so many parents think they are doing a great job modeling responsible screen time. How can parents honestly assess their own usage — and then balance usage that's necessary for work and the other that's “necessary” for parental sanity or escapism? 

Uhls: Make sure it's very clear to your child when you are working. But then when you are done with that last work email, make sure you put everything away and focus on your child. Boundaries are important.

Your kids will help you honestly assess your usage, but there are also plenty of apps that track time spent online. You can do a family check-in and compare notes. If you own what you do, you'll find your kids will be more honest, too.​

Malhotra: It's important to keep a diary for a few days and document all the times you may be reaching for the phone that prevent you from enjoying real life or meeting your personal and professional goals.

For example, are you reaching for your phone during dinner with a friend? Or looking for text messages at a stop light? Are you checking your phone while your children are talking to you? Do you check your phone for emails and Facebook notifications before you even get out of bed in the morning? 

These are all small habits that we can change to understand that technology is a tool that we use and not one that controls us. We should not feel obligated to check our phone or answer it every time it buzzes or rings. 

Whether it's after the kids go to sleep or before they wake up, schedule one hour in a day for media use for “sanity/escapism.” This way, you can maintain a healthy balance.

Q: I see the upsides of avoiding a hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” style of parenting. But are there any downsides to closely managing family use of technology? 

Uhls: ​The downside is you have to admit that you use media as much as your kids.

Most studies find a very high correlation between parental and child use of media. In fact, one study found that the amount of TV parents watch predicted the amount of TV that children watch more than having a laptop or TV in the bedroom!

Malhotra: It's always good to be mindful of your habits with media use. Technology should help us advance both personally and professionally. Anytime it takes away from our personal relationship or interferes with our professional goals, managing our time with media is important. However, at the same time, we cannot restrict children too much. Learning to be flexible is just as important.

Chat me up on Twitter: @mmaltaisLA 

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