Would you do anything for your child’s benefit? Research suggests that putting down your phone can make a powerful difference.

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Phones often accompany folks everywhere these days — from the breakfast table to the office to kids’ events to your bedroom. If you’re a parent, you may feel like your phone might be coming between you and your attention to your child.

On the plus side, your phone can help you plan playdates for your young one or track the whereabouts of your teen. But research suggests phone use may be causing distracted parenting.

A 2020 survey found that nearly 70% of parents feel distracted by their phones when spending time with their children. Also, 17% of those parents reported feeling distracted frequently.

Babies, children, and teens need quality attention for their social-emotional growth. Understanding the benefits of phone-free time to your child’s healthy development may help give you the inspiration you need to cut back.

Kids feel seen, safe, and act out less

In a 2017 study with 50 mother-infant pairs (babies ages 7 to 23 months), researchers instructed the mothers to interrupt free play with their children to spend time on their phones. Researchers observed the following results:

  • During free play with their mothers, babies were responsive, mothers were engaged, and babies showed more engagement with their mothers and toys.
  • Babies sought increased attention from their mothers when the mothers engaged in screen time.
  • Babies expressed increased negative emotion and decreased positive emotion when their mothers engaged in screen time.
  • Babies did not return to their original level of engagement during the reunion period with their mothers. They explored the room less, possibly because they placed increased focus on reuniting with their mothers.

When parents are distracted by their phones, children may seek attention. They may melt down, or work to reengage with their parents in other ways.

When children grow older and get their own cell phones, they may use them to calm and validate themselves, becoming less responsive to the guidance of their parents and more dependent on the validation of others.

Substituting imaginative play with your child for texting and scrolling may help you as a parent to:

  • decrease acting out
  • practice and acquire negotiation and sharing skills
  • express and explore feelings
  • encourage emotional growth

They are more likely to learn from you

A 2021 study examined the effect of texting on interactions between 54 mother-baby pairs — with children’s ages ranging from 20 to 22 months old.

In one group, researchers interrupted free play by having the mothers fill out a survey online. In another, researchers asked mothers to fill out a pen-and-pencil survey during their play. The third group remained uninterrupted.

The study found patterns that support the importance of uninterrupted free play:

  • Both digital and written interruptions changed both mothers’ and children’s behavior.
  • Mothers offered less instruction and educational guidance when not using a cellphone or pen-and-paper.
  • Babies increased their bids for attention in both conditions compared with the uninterrupted group.

Toddlers learn through free play with parents — which is more likely to happen when parents aren’t texting, scrolling, or otherwise engaged.

Teens receive a better model for their own cell phone use

A 2018 survey found that many parents across all demographic groups worry about their teens’ cell phone use:

  • Some parents try to control their teen’s cell phone use: 57%
  • Others worry about their teen’s cell phone use: 65%
  • Most of them notice their teens are somewhat distracted by their phones during conversations: 72%

Meanwhile, teens worry about their own cell phone use. In the survey above, half the teenagers acknowledged that they’ve tried to cut back on their phone use.

Want your teen to look at you — and not their phone — when you’re talking? Working to limit your own cell phone use may help.

Many parents admit that they spend too much time on their phones. The result may be distracted parenting.

Children need attention and engagement from their caregivers to support healthy social and emotional development.

When parents put down their phones, children feel seen, safe, and respected. Parent-child relationships improve when everyone is present to develop these relationships more deeply.

Have trouble putting your phone down? You may wish to consider:

Cell phones are an important part of modern life. Learning to put them aside to spend quality time with your children may be an equally important part of modern parenting.

Try not to be afraid to use cutting down on your cellphone use as an opportunity to get closer with the people you love.