Much has been written about the dangers of kids spending too much time using their phones and other digital devices. After all, time spent looking at a screen is time not spent exercising, reading, studying, and engaging in face-to-face communication.

Research about the detrimental effects of excess time spent on digital devices tends to focus on kids rather than adults because kids’ brains are still developing, and because habits (good and bad) start young. But, consider who most kids emulate when forming their habits. According to experts at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, most kids’ most important role models are their parents. If you limit your kids’ digital time, are you practicing what you’re preaching?

A True Sign of the Times

In February, a Houston-area daycare center made national news when it posted a sign on its door admonishing parents to “Get off your phone!!!! Your child is happy to see you! Are you happy to see your child??…” While the scolding tone of that particular sign generated controversy, the message seemed to resonate and serve as a reminder to parents everywhere: Are you paying more attention to your phone or your child?

Parents’ Digital Habits May Harm Their Kids

Many studies have concluded that kids are negatively affected when their parents are distracted by their cell phones or other digital devices. At least one study found that negative repercussions begin as early as infancy. To develop healthy nervous systems, babies need consistent, reliable parental attention. When a rhythmic, predictable pattern is upset (because a parent is distracted by their cell phone, for example), that could hinder babies’ emotional development and even contribute to anxiety and depression later in life.

“Laps Not Apps”

During its 2016 national conference, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged that developing children need “laps not apps.” An article in Psychology Today listed “uninvolved/preoccupied caregivers” as a major source of low self-esteem later in life, noting that distracted parents send a message to kids that they’re unimportant. When parents put down their devices and spend time really communicating, really listening, they’re more likely to pick up on subtle “red flags” that may indicate their children are struggling in school, being bullied, abusing alcohol or drugs, are depressed, etc.

Parents’ device dependence not only harms kids’ emotional health. Sadly, it has been a contributing factor to tragedies. In January, a four-year-old boy in China drowned as his mom focused on her cell phone. In 2015, three siblings in Texas drowned as their mother allegedly was distracted by her cell phone. In 2013 a Wisconsin mother checking Facebook on her cell phone had a car accident that killed her 11-year-old daughter and 4- and 5-year-old nieces.

Unplug From Your Device, Plug In to Your Child

If you’re never far from your device, there’s no need to feel guilty. Digital devices can increase efficiency and productivity, freeing up more time to spend with your children. You can use your devices to shop, find directions, catch up on work, plan trips, etc. that benefit your kids in the long run. The key is to be mindful about how, when, and how often you’re on your devices. You can do this by:

  • Identifying “need” versus “want” device uses (i.e.: responding to a business email versus catching up on Facebook)
  • Creating family “device rules,” posting them, and sticking to them (no cell phones during dinner, no phone use for parents until kids are in bed, etc.)
  • Carving out a 10- or 15-minute daily block of undivided one-to-one time for each child. It may not seem like a lot, but when was the last time you sat with your child with zero distractions simply asking about his or her day?

Retraining your brain to unplug may be challenging. Just remember that devices will always be available to you. Your children will not always be available to you in the face-to-face way they are now!

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