How parents addicted to cell phones are harming children


Dear Adele,

I swear my daughter and her husband are addicted to their cell phones! I sometimes think the children are neglected when their parents pay more attention to their phones or devices than the kids. Do you think I’m overreacting and out of touch with modern parents and the current times?



Dear Concerned,

As a grandparent you are in a sticky position. You love your daughter and her family and want to be involved with them. You also have a wealth of parenting experience that could be helpful. But older folk find it wise to say little that might be construed as interference or negativity. Otherwise, the young parents might decide they don’t want the grandparents around quite so much. However, I understand your quandary and concerns on this one!

Screens seem to be everywhere. From cell phones, tablets and computers, to television the lure of the screen is great for the younger generations. An average American adult touches his phone over 2500 times a day and according to the American Psychiatric Association this is congruent with the meaning of an addiction. When children are exposed to screens used by others who are caring for them, it is called second hand screen time. The latest research is showing that this can be problematic for youngsters.

The first major consideration is the result of the modelling that occurs. Being around adults who use devices excessively makes children more likely to become addicted to devices themselves. ‘Monkey see, monkey do’ as the old saying goes definitely applies here.

In addition to this, the more time the adults spend on the devices the less quality time there is available for the offspring. Kids come to feel that these devices are of greater consequence to their parents than they are. In order to get the parent’s attention, sometimes children act out, whine, complain, or fight.

Too much screen time by adults affects the parent-child relationships, as well. We have long known that young children need eye to eye contact, lots of communication and involvement on the part of the parent. None of this is happening when the adults have their faces staring downward at their cell phones or eyes fixed on computer screens or television.

Second hand screen time can impact a child emotionally, too. Self-esteem can be diminished. Children feel second rate when they are not prioritized by their parents with engaging activities and time together. Emotional repercussions can cause anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

Another factor to think about is the content the children are exposed to during second hand screen time. A parent or adult may not even be aware that his or her child is being exposed to violence or a series of quick images which may be adult or inappropriate for little ones.

The impact of second hand screen time is definitely greater in infancy and the preschool years when “a child’s cognitive, communication, social, and emotional development happens via their relationships with parents and other core providers,” says Dr. Nicole Beurkens, clinical psychologist. That being said individual attention is needed for teenagers too, because of the developmental challenges they face. Parents “should prioritize focused engagement with the child over distraction with devices the majority of time,” Beurkins concludes.

An article entitled ‘How Second Hand Screen Time Can Affect Young Children’ by Healthline states that second hand screen time can affect brain development adversely and that it is linked to decreased cognitive ability, impaired language development, mood, hyperactivity, short attention span and irritability. If withdrawal of screen time is used as a punishment, research is showing that children actually end up wanting and watching augmented amounts of screen time.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that screens be avoided for infants and toddlers under 18 months, and that the children aged 2 to 5 should have no more than one hour a day of quality programs, with parental guidance.

A Reader’s Digest article entitled ‘Second Hand Screen Time: Why Experts Are Calling It the New Second Hand Smoking’, by Bobbie Dempsey, suggests things parents can do to ensure second hand screen time is not negatively affecting their children.

  • Minimize adult use of devices in the presence of kids.
  • Take cues from the children, noting behavior problems while the adults are using devices.
  • Model the appropriate amount of device usage.
  • Identify places within the house where no devices are allowed, such as the washroom or the bedrooms.
  • Identify activities when no devices are allowed such as mealtime, bedtime, during conversations and when group games are being played.
  • Identify times during the day and night when no devices are allowed by anyone, at all.
  • Turn notifications off frequently.
  • Check phones less repeatedly.
  • Use an ‘App’ to monitor the parents’ use of the phone.
  • Use an ‘App’ to place parental controls on the children’s phones.

As a grandparent you may be able to use some of these ideas in conversation with your daughter and her husband. You might find it useful to give her a copy of this column. One of the best things you can do of course is to model appropriate use of devices yourself when you are in the presence of your daughter’s family, in their home or your own.

I will conclude with a few quotes about device usage:

I thought the invention of mobile phones was to save our time and money, but we are doing exactly the opposite.— Srinivas Shenoy

Computers and mobile devices are becoming known for their inherent insecurities and the ability to damage the long-term health of the users.” — Steven Magee

A proper table setting provides no place for a cell phone.— Frank Sonnenberg

Thank you for writing, Concerned.

Sincerely, Adele

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