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 😉
Could not agree more!
LOVE this Alison. I’ve felt hugely guilty a couple of times this week when I’ve had to work at my laptop while the toddler is awake and playing around me, because she hasn’t wanted to nap. There are times when the girls do ask me to put my phone away and they have a point, but then there are others when I’m doing something important. Ultimately, my phone use means my family get to have money to do fun things. I guess the bad thing would be if I missed those fun things because I was on my phone the whole time, but I’m not. So yeah, I think we need to give ourselves a break. I’m also really over being told how to parent my kids by other people putting their ideologies onto my family. Whether this is a notice at pre-school over the correct bedtime or an article in a newspaper telling me I need to be more present with my children. They can all rod off!
I really enjoyed this post Alison and it got me thinking. I constantly feel guilty for being on my phone too much around the girls. But I really like your comparison to your dad reading the paper at the kitchen table, I remember my Dad doing that a lot and I am not psychologically damaged by that. Sometimes though I do wish I had a job where I could come home at the end of the day and switch off and be more present with my kids, rather than on off working when I am with them. But then at the same time you could argue that I would come home and still look at something else on my phone, I think that is just the generation we are in really, although I know I am way worse than some of my friends. x
I completely agree with this. I think it’s also about openness with the kids. So, explaining, when they ask to out your phone away, what you’re doing. (Unless it’s faffing in insta of course)
I would try not to have when my 5yo bursts out of school, but only because he really needs eye contact, a big hug and a hello, otherwise that negative behaviour you mentioned goes crazy. We have a no phones at the table rule, but other than that I just police myself.
I love the point about actually being at the school gate. So easy for people to judge when your work is more visible.
I read this blog preparing to disagree with quite a bit of it. I try not to use my phone too much around the kids, particularly at the dinner table or while watching them at various after-school clubs, and get really cross with Mr C when he’s always on it. But I had genuinely never made the comparisons that you did – when I wander around the supermarket aisles, I don’t feel guilty that I’m concentrating on the contents of the trolley more than I am my kids, but I do feel bad when I’m sitting with them doing my online shop from my phone. I never remember feeling aggrieved at my dad for reading the paper at the breakfast table, but wouldn’t dream of checking out my BBC News app while my kids are munching on their Weetabix. So really enjoyed this blog – thanks!
I often feel guilty about using my phone so much – my husband often nags me (even though he does it too) because he thinks we’re being bad parents. When his mum stays she watches crappy old TV programmes that I can’t stand so I do stuff on my phone…apparently that’s rude too, but as I’ve pointed out, it’s no different to reading a book or a newspaper. My daughter does occasionally tell me I’ve been on my phone a lot, which makes me feel guilty, so I put it down and give her my full attention when she wants to talk. She doesn’t do the same for me though when she’s playing a game on the tablet!
I think it’s a difficult one to pin down actually. Totally agree that phone use isn’t bad, and actually, we need to model appropriate use of devices to our kids. My problem though, is that once I’ve done the work stuff or read the news, I then want to check my instagram page, and read what people are up to on Facebook. And that can quickly become habit, and suck all your time. That’s when I think we’re giving kids a raw deal. That said, we’re a different generation to our parents. My mum and dad never spent time with me. It just wasn’t expected. You had kids, looked after their physical needs, cuddled them, and carried on with your life. Your kids came with you and sat around bored until you’d finished what you were doing, or they learned to do the same as you. My mum certainly never played with me. The only time I remember spending much one to one time with my mum was when I was old enough to enjoy joining in with the Saturday bake that she did. And I never did anything with my dad at all! So our kids do get a fair bit of our time these days, and kids need to be aware that parents have their own interests and commitments too. What I think we need to spend more time doing, instead of being on our phones, is actively pursuing our own interests. Be that dancing or singing, yoga or running, book clubs or painting classes. So many of us don’t actually spend time on ourselves, and we should.
I really enjoyed this post. Lots of mother might have suffered guilt reading post but that’s okay, do what’e best for you and your child!