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The Importance of Distraction-Free Parenting

Parents today are generally aware of why it is a problem to let their kids constantly be on phones, computers and TVs. They know it impacts kids’ sleep, that it is a factor in childhood obesity, that it is associated with delayed language development in babies and delayed social skills development in children and teens. They know that too much time of screens is a predictor of academic problems and social anxiety and that it is linked to attention, emotional and conduct problems.

Nonetheless, many parents find it difficult to limit their kids’ use of devices. Partly it’s because they have become so common in American homes. The average American home has 10 active devices. In families of 4 or more, there can be as many as 19! Even when parents make an effort to limit use at home, devices are available at school and from their friends. Parents can’t control access every minute of every day.

Parent use is biggest hurdle

But it seems that the biggest hurdle for many parents to overcome in managing their kids’ time on screens is their own overuse of devices. Maybe you are one of them.

If so, you’re not alone in having a technology habit that is hard to break. The current cohort of parents is used to having – and using – technology everywhere. A 2017 national survey conducted by Common Sense Media, which included nearly 1,800 parents of children aged eight to 18, found that parents spend an average of 8 hours a day on various screens for personal use, not work. It’s challenging at best to lay down the law about screens with your kids if you are doing so while looking at your own tablet.

It’s a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”. Many otherwise conscientious parents do their best to limit their kids’ use of screens but don’t understand that what the kids observe is more important than the best parental lecture. How then, do you break your own habit so your kids will listen to you when it comes to screen use?

Prioritize time with your kids. The U.S. Board of Labor Statistics that states that the average American parent spends less than 2 hours a day in child related activity, with mothers characteristically spending more time than fathers. You can do better. Play with your children. Read to them. Cook with them. Go for hikes and bike rides. Visit museums. Time together in the living room with everyone on a different device doesn’t count. But time watching the same TV show or playing the same game and — here’s the important part – having a thoughtful conversation about what’s going on does.

Don’t underestimate your importance in your children’s lives. Your time and attention matter. 32% of the kids in a 2015 international study of six thousand eight to thirteen year olds reported feeling “unimportant” when their parents used their cellphones during meals and other family times. Discipline yourself to ignore the “pings” of notifications from social media and email when you are involved with your children. Most messages can wait. Your children can’t. Regular, positive parental attention is the fundamental source of self-esteem, healthy life style habits, and relationship skills.

Make eye contact with your children. Don’t let your attention to screens prevent you from looking your kids in the eye every time you talk to them. Eye contact with a baby is the beginning of language development. Eye contact tells your growing child he is more important than what is on the phone or TV. Kids who learn from parents how to maintain eye contact with others are more likely to be successful later in life. Most important, eye contact is an act of love. It says, “I’m really here with you.” “I see you.”

Establish media-free time for everyone, including you. According to a 2011 “State of Mobile Etiquette” study by Intel, 46% of kids surveyed reported that they had seen their parents use the phone during dinner. When parents are engaged with their phones, not their children and each other during meals, everyone is missing important family bonding time. There is compelling research that kids who have relaxed dinner times with their involved parents at least 3 times a week do better academically and socially. That’s just one example. Establish additional regular times when you are device distraction-free. Leave your phone home on family outings, when at children’s events, and for an hour before their bedtime. Stick with it. The quality of your relationships will improve.

Take seriously that you are an important role model: A good example is distracted driving. A team of researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing found that about half of parents talk on a cell phone while driving when their children between the ages of 4 and 10 are in the car, while one in three read text messages and one in seven use social media. As vital as the safety issues is the fact that your kids interpret anything you do as behavior that is okay with you. If you do it, chances are they will as well. Putting phones in the glove box while driving is a statement of your personal responsibility and an affirmation of your love for your kids.

Kids do learn what they live. When they live with parents who are regularly distracted by screens, it becomes their “normal”. They miss out on learning the many skills of give and take of attention and communication that happens naturally in screen-free time with their parents. When their parents are more responsive to phones than to them, children learn they are not as important as whatever is coming in on social media and email.

Use your phone and other devices thoughtfully when the kids are around. Your kids – and you – deserve it.

Related article: Reconnect with Your Family: Have a Hotdog

The Importance of Distraction-Free Parenting

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). The Importance of Distraction-Free Parenting. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Oct 2018 (Originally: 8 Oct 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 7 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.