Opinion: Are your kids becoming smartphone junkies? They probably learned it watching you

Are you restricting your kids' smartphone diet while you binge?
(Phillip Guelland / EPA)

News flash: Kids age 8 and under are spending way more time using mobile media than just six years ago. A new report from the nonprofit family media watchdog Common Sense Media says our youngest kids are spending nearly 10 times as much time with their eyes glued to screens than they did in 2011. Back then, the study says, the 8-and-under crowd spent only about five minutes a day on tech devices. Today, it’s closer to 50 minutes a day.

Surprised? Of course not. Almost every parent these days has seen our kids’ faces illuminated by the eerie glow of the screens we hand them.

The greatest dangers for kids in the growing use of pocket devices aren’t simply a sore neck and numb thumb. Kids at this young age are hard-wired to be active, not sitting around watching a phone. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 policy statement notes that tech exposure for preschoolers can affect their weight, sleep, cognition and language development and lead to social/emotional delays. A recent piece by psychology professor Jean M. Twenge in the Atlantic tracked a correlation between the increase in depression among teens and the increase in tech use.


I use tech the way my dad used alcohol — compulsively, irresponsibly and excessively.

As one kid in the piece put it: “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”

That won’t be our kids, my husband and I have vowed. We’re tech geeks, but we’ve made a big effort to power down and unplug, even as our kids are part of the now 42% who have their own devices. Our family is doing it — the pixel-restricting, balanced media diet that the experts advise.

Reading this latest study, I have to admit I felt pretty good about myself as a mom.

But, as it turns out, this parent had two screen faces: The one that beatifically explains the pitfalls of media overuse and extols the importance of engaging in the real world, and the one so intensely locked on her screen she can’t even hear exactly what her children are saying to her.

I use tech the way my dad used alcohol — compulsively, irresponsibly and excessively. No matter how I carefully monitor what and how much they watch, they are watching me more. And what they see is my eyes aren’t on them, really.

When the #MeToo surge overtook social media this week, I was spending more time and energy carefully sharing my story on Facebook than with the people on whom it would have an actual impact. My eyes were fixed on my screen, not on my family.

I insist my kids follow a controlled “media diet,” but I’m so busy bingeing that I can’t lift my head to even look them in the eye. It’s like I’m giving my kids Brussels sprouts and carrots while shoveling a Big Mac down my throat right in front of them.

What’s at stake, as with most things related to parenting, is how my children will live, especially when Mom isn’t around to lecture and monitor. How they integrate and interact with technology now sets the stage for the rest of their lives. Their relationships, their coping mechanisms, their sense of appropriateness, compassion and connectedness — all the things we parents had a chance to learn as kids unplugged. Controlling the relationship with technology now will determine whether they will master it or be enslaved by it.

The reality is these devices are not going anywhere anytime soon. They are everywhere. In fact, 95% of families with children 8 and under now have a smartphone. That’s up from 63% just four years ago. And you know what? We parents are spending about a workday’s worth of time on our pocket screens ourselves.

Sure, my family has significantly scaled back how much our kids use devices, but I am still guilty — not of giving my kids unrestricted or unsupervised use of the devices in our household, but of not giving them an even mediocre role model to observe.

In order for studies that highlight the habits and impact of technology on our kids to hold any meaning for families, we first have to look up from the screens ourselves.

Michelle Maltais is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and mother of two children under 8.

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