(CNET) — I can’t stay off my phone. And I’m afraid it’s hurting my 2-year-old son.
Sometimes it’s a breaking news story that draws me in, other times it’s boredom. Whatever it is, this device in my hands — which gives me access to nearly all human knowledge plus all the cat videos I could ever want — is constantly calling for my attention.
Settinghasn’t been easy. I’ll sometimes sneak a quick glance at headlines when I’m in line at the grocery store or when we’re waiting to see our son’s pediatrician. Once I tapped on an alert during a religious service.
My wife, Laura, first realized I would have a problem when she saw my excitement ahead of Apple‘s . For years, she’s told me I’m being rude when I look at my phone. Now we talk about whether my behavior is affecting our toddler, Theodore.
“I’m worried that in the future, he’s going to feel like we weren’t active parents,” she says. “It’s just very frustrating.”
I’m not alone in my screen addiction. The average US consumer now spends about five hours a day on a mobile device, according to data analytics firm Flurry. That number skews even higher for young adults. Nearly 40 percent of those aged 18 to 29 are online “almost constantly,” the Pew Research Center found, and nine times out of 10 they’re using a mobile device.
Our brains make us do it.
That’s because all those mobile alerts, notifications and online search results give us a sense of reward and surprise whenever we see them cross that little screen. This feeling triggers the brain to produce dopamine, the chemical that causes us to seek out food, sex and drugs — and leads to addictive behavior. Dopamine is at its most stimulating when the rewards come on an unpredictable schedule, just like phone alerts. All of which means there are plenty of new parents spending too much time staring at their phones. Parents like me.
That raises a question: How does our device addiction affect the adorable little sponges we’re rearing? Theodore already picks up random objects, holds them to his ear and says, “Hello!”
I set out to learn the answer.
Anecdotal evidence suggests your kids really do resent your smartphone obsession.
Earlier this year, second-graders at a Louisiana elementary school were assigned to write a homework essay on an invention they wish had never been created. Four out of 21 students chose the smartphone, according to Jen Beason, the teacher who posted the now-private responses on her Facebook page.
“I don’t like the phone because my [parents] are on their phone every day,” one second-grader wrote. “A phone is sometimes a really bad [habit]. I hate my mom’s phone and I wish she never had one.”
The post was shared more than 261,000 times, according to USA Today.
There’s also a growing body of research showing that parents’ phone distractions can make kids feel unimportant, sad, mad, angry and lonely. In one study, babies became uncomfortable and fussy when they saw their parents shift from a happy face to a resting face (our usual expressions when reading a smartphone.)
Parents’ technoference, as it’s called, can also cause our kids to misbehave.
One study observing parents and caregivers on their phones in a fast-food restaurant found children were more prone to act out in a bid for attention. Another published by the journal Child Development examined reports from 170 two-parent families of 3-year-old kids.
That study looked at whether parents’ phone usage — things like checking texts during dinner, playtime or other activities — interrupted time engaged with their children. The researchers asked them to report how often their kids whined, sulked or became irritable, easily frustrated or hyperactive over a two-month period. The study concluded that even “normal” levels of technoference correlated with children’s behavior.
“We deserve some downtime, an escape, something more intellectually stimulating at times,” Brandon McDaniel, co-author of the study, wrote in a blog for Institute for Family Studies. Yet it’s important to know that being distracted by our phones “could potentially influence every aspect of parenting quality, leading you to be less in sync with your child’s cues, to misinterpret your child’s needs, to respond more harshly than usual and to respond much too long after the need arose.
Some parents have already begun to draw a hard line around their phone use.
“It’s almost better to sit and stare into space instead of staring at your phone,” says Graham Charles, a stay-at-home dad who blogs about his experiences at Doodaddy.net. “If you’re staring at your phone, you’re sucked in.”
That’s all well and good, but is it realistic?
“You can’t always say your child will come before your phone,” says Judith Myers-Walls, a professor emerita at Purdue University in human development and family studies. The question, she says, is “How can I model for my child a positive way to use this?”
The answer I heard time and again from child development experts is balance and moderation.
If it looks like Theodore is playing on his own, then it’s OK for me to grab my phone or take a breather. But I have to be smart about it. I can play on my phone and still take regular breaks to check in with him, tell him the train track he’s built looks cool, hug him and then go back to what I was doing.
“We can expect kids at a certain point to be able to entertain themselves,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, founder of Happiest Baby, a startup named after his chart-topping book, The Happiest Baby on the Block.
If Theodore’s seeking my attention, that’s another matter. Ignoring him for too long can make him feel less important than the weird rectangular thing in my hand. On the plus side, making him wait a little bit can teach him the value of patience. Karp suggests setting a minute timer so Theodore knows when I’m done. But I have to stick to it, too.
And if I have to use my phone in front of Theodore while he wants my attention, a good strategy might be to tell him what I’m doing, like answering an email or looking up the answer to a question I’ve been wondering about.
If these guidelines seem squishy, it’s because they are. A lot of the research focuses on extremes.
“Parents have to cut themselves some slack,” says Karp. “They deserve downtime.”
I still worry, of course. That nagging feeling probably won’t ever go away.
— Ian Sherr
This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.