How Parent Phone Time Impacts Children

How Parent Phone Time Impacts Children


Young working father text messaging on mobile phone while being with his small daughter at home.

In my three years as a parent, I’ve never met another mom or dad who didn’t seem to have their child’s best interests in mind. Sure, I know they exist; I watch the news. But the parents I interact with always seem to have their hearts in the right place, despite their phone time.

Then I hear a ping. Is that my phone? Is that the phone of the mother of two I’m talking to at the park? Maybe I’m just hearing things. Either way, I better check to see if I missed an important text message. In this moment of distraction, my 2-year-old daughter, Adley, is trying to get my attention. But, if I’m being honest, I’m not responding right away because I’m focused on whether my phone pinged and if I should check to make sure.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal to tune out your toddler for 10 seconds, but studies suggest too much parent phone time could have long-term consequences on children.

How Parent Phone Time Affects Children

It’s easy to point to our smartphones as the reason our society struggles to be present. But while these are easy dots to connect, distracted parenting isn’t new. It’s been researched and discussed for generations.

In the 1970s, long before the first “smartphone” was invented, Dr. Ed Tronick developed the “still face experiment.” It involves a parent face-to-face with their baby while playing, smiling, and talking. The parent then shows a still face with no emotion for two minutes.

Countless examples show the baby trying to get the parent to react and respond by any means. Pointing, laughing, crying, and having tantrums. Eventually, the baby gives up trying. After the two minutes is over, the parent returns to normal interactions with the baby, who is visibly happy to see emotions and responses again.1,2

Parallels with Today’s Parents and Their Phones

While this may be a dramatic example from 50-plus years ago, it’s easy to draw parallels with common problems we see with parenting today.

I would argue that most of us are guilty of focusing more on the latest text or push alerts than what our child does, even for a minute. This isn’t to suggest you can never look at your phone or be temporarily distracted when you’re a parent.

An analysis of the still-face experiment by Dr. Mary Gregory concluded that having a nonresponsive parent “in short doses” is okay. Still, if being nonresponsive happens over longer periods, “it can have a detrimental impact on the baby’s development.” 3

This, of course, isn’t limited to smartphones.

Being Responsive to Kids Matters

My toddler is just as persistent in trying to get my attention when I’m cooking dinner or changing lightbulbs, activities that aren’t always easy for me to drop at the moment. But ensuring you are responsive to your child’s needs as much as possible can have long-ranging consequences.

Gregory also said in her research that children with parents who are not responsive to their needs have more trouble trusting and relating to others and regulating their emotions.3

This seems obvious to me: Be more engaged and pay more attention. Basically, be better. But my instinct upon reading this analysis is to ask: What about all the time I now spend with Adley?

Since quitting my job to become a stay-at-home dad, our time together feels endless (I mean that in a good way). Doesn’t that count for something? Worldwide reports and studies increasingly show parents are spending more time with their children than ever before.4

But is this truly quality time?

Children’s Screen Time vs. Parent’s Phone Time

In a 2018 article for The Atlantic, early childhood educator Erika Christakis puts it more bluntly: “We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable – always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.” 5

Christakis argues that too much emphasis is put on our children’s screen time instead of how much the parents are distracted by it. What’s lost is the quality of interactions between a parent and their child. A parent distracted by their phone can become irritable when their child is looking for attention. This can cause them to be quicker to anger.5

It’s a familiar sign of addiction.

More studies also connect language development in babies and toddlers with one-on-one interactions.6

“Language is the single best predictor of school achievement,” said psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in The Atlantic article, “and the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults.”5

They are connections that begin long before a child says individual words or speaks in complete sentences. That means better phone habits can’t start too early. Over the last few months, I have begun to consciously avoid checking my phone as often when I’m with my daughter. But years of habits aren’t broken in a matter of days, and I find myself subconsciously looking down far more than I realized.

The good news is when I look back up, that cheesy toddler smile is there to greet me. It’s a quick reminder to put my phone away and bask in these moments of joy.

Until I forget five minutes later and check my phone. Again.

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