As a mum, there are countless things that I feel guilty about. The number of vegetable portions I cajole my child into eating each day (yesterday: one), how often I tidy her room (rarely), the speed at which I read a bedtime story (as quickly as possible, discouraging any questions) and the number of times we do messy creative things like paint/bake/use Play Doh (um, never) are all just the tip of the big old iceberg of guilt.
But possibly the top of my list – the number one shame inducer, the thing that would be pick of the pops if this was the Sunday evening Radio 1 Top 40 chart show and Bruno Brookes was hosting – is the amount of time I spend on my phone.
My six-year-old will be eating breakfast, and I’ll be sitting next to her drinking a cuppa and checking the news headlines. We’ll be walking to school and I’ll be sending a quick text with one hand and holding her hand with the other. We’ll be watching Smurfs 2 together on Netflix, and I’ll be scrolling through Instagram (whilst still following the plot in case she decides to quiz me on it).
I’m aware that I’m teaching my six-year-old bad habits and I worry that I’m sending her the subliminal message that what’s going on with my phone is more important, to me, than she is. Last week, new research showed that more than a third of secondary school age children have asked a parent to put their phone away and that overuse of phones by parents is harming family life. A notice put up by a nursery in Houston went viral a few months ago, and it was clear that the staff thought that parents shouldn’t be using their phone when collecting their kids at the end of the day. Meanwhile a school in Middlesborough has gone one step further and actually banned parents from using a phone at the school gate.
There’s no denying we use our phones a lot – in fact, according to Apple, the average person unlocks their iPhone 80 times a day, which is 6 or 7 times an hour and roughly once every ten minutes.
But here’s the thing: we live in a world now where we use our phones to conduct a large portion of our lives. I use my phone to send and receive work emails, to book dance classes for the six-year-old, to pay bills, to adjust the heating in our home, to arrange play dates with other parents, to tell me how to get from A to B, to do the grocery shopping, to make endless lists of life admin that needs to be sorted, to catch up on the news, to pay for parking, to track my menstrual cycle, to check train and bus times, to organise my days with the calendar, to track parcel deliveries and so much more.
Once upon a time, parents did all these things in different ways. Perhaps they called the dance teacher to book a term of classes, fiddled with the thermostat to change the heating, visited the bank to pay bills, used a home computer to track parcel deliveries, went to the supermarket to buy groceries, made lists on notepads and Post It notes. We’re not any busier than parents were 10-20 years ago, we’re just doing the same things but using our phone. How many of us remember eating cereal for breakfast while our dad sat at the table with a newspaper opened out in front of him? Is it any different to me scrolling through the BBC News app while my six-year-old munches her Rice Krispies?
Experts like Dr Aric Sigman (remember him on Live & Kicking in the 90s?) say that if a child is receiving the message that your phone is more important than them, it will ultimately affect the parent/child relationship. “Being a role model is very important for a child’s health,” Dr Sigman told the Mail recently. “Just as a parent can create good habits in terms of food, exercise and alcohol use, so they can with screen misuse or overuse. When a child sees his parent looking constantly at a smartphone, it’s likely the child will also value this activity over other interactions.”
As with most things in life, the secret seems to be balance. I think it’s OK to use your phone around your kids and it’s OK to prioritise that thing that you’re doing on your phone, if it’s important. Because news flash: we’re not always ‘phubbing’ our kids because we’re chatting to our mates on WhatsApp or mindlessly checking Facebook. It’s OK to finish sending that quick work email as your child is leaving his or her classroom at 3.30pm – in fact, isn’t it amazing and brilliant that we now have the ability to work remotely thanks to advancements in technology? Yes, I might be squeezing in a bit of work at the school gate using my phone, but I’m at the school gate rather than in an office with a childminder collecting the six-year-old.
But child psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg thinks phones shouldn’t be present when you’re collecting children from school or from clubs. “Children can feel that they are not being given enough attention by their parent and they are not a priority,” she says. “This may lead to children feeling sad, or they may try to get a parent’s attention in negative ways.”
However I’m not sure we should be aiming to give our kids 100% of our undivided attention. If we do, will they grow up to expect immediate and undivided attention from everyone they meet? Will they demand attention in a rude way? A few weeks ago, I was waiting in the school playground, for school to end, and got chatting to another mum. She was explaining something to me, when the six-year-old came bounding up to me and started tapping my arm. “Mum! Mum! Mum!” she said to me. I held her hand and signalled ‘wait’ with my other hand, while the mum finished what she was saying. It got me thinking: I feel strongly that my daughter should know that she shouldn’t interrupt people when they’re talking. And is me finishing that conversation any different to me finishing off a quick urgent ‘job’ on my phone?
Of course, there are times when I put my phone away and focus 100% on the six-year-old, and what we are doing. I do think it’s really important to block out distractions – not just with your child but with a partner or friends too. When I’m in the pub with mates, I try to keep my phone in my bag. When I’m out for dinner with Mr P, I do the same. It’s healthy to allow yourself to focus on what’s happening in front of you.
But like many people, I’m busy, life can feel hectic and we’re juggling so many things – with the help of our phones. So perhaps we should knock phone use off the top of the guilt list… unless, you know, you only ever use your phone to play Candy Crush 😉