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Why I’m Putting Down the iPhone


Does this sound familiar?

Your child is playing, either on the playground or on the living room floor.  You’re technically “with” your child: you know exactly what he’s doing, you can keep up a simple conversation with him, you’re right there in case he needs something.

But you’re actually on your phone.  You’re checking e-mail, you’re texting a spouse, you’re checking a website, you’re reading an article.

Since I started blogging, my iPhone usage has skyrocketed, especially when I’m around my son.  There are endless reasons why I need to check e-mail, respond to a comment.  I’ve justified this as okay because I figured that my son — at two — really didn’t notice the difference if he were thoroughly occupied with something else and because I didn’t allow him to play with the phone at all himself.  Sometimes when I’m alone for a day with him I’ll even go on the computer, but that generally gets him upset and it’s clear that he hates my laptop.

This weekend I read an interview  in the Atlantic magazine with  Linda Stone, who’s been researching for decades the changes in our attention strategies as the world has become increasingly hyper-connected.   For me, the article called “The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World” was a wake up call about how I want to model focus and attention for my son.  I’ve written previously about how “boredom” and self-directed play were influential to my childhood and to my own creativity and learning.

Linda Stone
Linda Stone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From Linda Stone’s discussion of her research on attention and new media, here is what I’ve learned about why being on the phone all the time is not going to help create that sort of environment for my son:

1. Your children will model your own attention habits.  So if you show your kids that you constantly pay attention to everything around you — your phone, your child, the television — without focusing fully on anything, this is how they learn to interact with their environment.  She calls this “continuous partial attention.”

2.  Kids don’t necessarily have a natural fascination with social media and phones.  According to her research, they’re actually fascinated by what their parents find interesting.  If you were staring at the fish in your aquarium all day, then your kids would learn to find that equally riveting.

3.  If their parents are always on the phone, children think, according to Stone, “That’s where it’s all at, there’s where I want to be!”  When she interviewed children ages seven to 12 about their parents’ phone usage, they told her things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” or “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”

4.  Children learn about how others are thinking and feeling — in other words, empathy — through direct eye contact and nonverbal communication.  If this is true, and most of our gaze is directed toward our electronic devices, our kids could miss out on learning about empathy in the same way that many of us did as children.

For me, I needed the reminder that my son is a little sponge, soaking in how the adults around him interact with the world.  Children learn by imitating their role models, and if we — as the adults closest to them — show them that electronic devices are what’s most important, this may have a significant impact on their later attention and empathy skills.

Now, please don’t confuse what I’m saying with the judgmental, sanctimonious recents posts that told parents — well, mothers — to get off their phones when they’re on the playgrounds because they were selfish and missing quality seconds with their kids and showing them that the phone was more important than they are.  That’s not what I’m saying.  Seriously, many kids, even young ones, could probably use less interaction time with adults, less hovering, less constant conversation and monitoring.  They could use more time away from adults to go down the slide without anyone clapping — as I’ve been known to do, well, yesterday — and more chances to spin wildly down a hill without anyone telling them to slow down.

Instead, I’m just saying that we may be showing kids that our devices are too important, that they are deserving of hours of our day and our limited attentional energies.  Maybe next time that I’m sitting on the couch and my son is playing with his trains I’ll read a book.  Or I can sit quietly, relax, and focus on my breathing on the playground bench while my son is running around.

It’s a tough promise to make.  I’m not sure that I can keep it honestly.

What about you?  How do you use social media when you’re around your children?  Do you think that this research is overly alarmist?

 Over at The HerStories Project, our collaborative project examining new motherhood, one of the things that we’re most interested in is new parents’ relationship to social media.  The online world of smart phones, tablets, and social media are affecting all of our lives in important ways, and we think it might be changing the experience of new motherhood.  If you’re a new mom, please check out our HerStories Motherhood Survey and tell us how new media has impacted your experiences.

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  1. First of all, great job with this very tricky subject. I really related to this- it made me cringe, squirm, nod, and almost feel like crying at times. I am polarized by this conundrum sometimes. I think the key for me is trying to compartmentalize as best I can, while still showing my children that “mommy is a person too” and that sometimes I am not fully available. I try to do my “screen time” when they are not around, or are sleeping. There will be a few moments when I need to pick up my phone when I am in their presence, but I am trying to limit it. I think your point about modeling distraction is very important. You delivered this message without seeming sanctimonious at all- it was very real. Great post!
    Stephanie @ Mommy, for real. recently posted…To Swear Or Not To Swear- Why Are People Uncomfortable With Profanity?My Profile

    • Jessica says:

      I am torn in many ways too! Our kids should see us getting alone time, but so much of the research about too much social media — and our kids seeing us with it — is conflicting. You’re right… Kids need to recognize that sometimes parents do their own thing, even when they’re physically with us. And I think it’s okay that kids know that phones and computers are important tools for work. I guess I’ve just found myself concerned about my habit of “mindless” surfing and blogging in front of my son, even when it’s not completely necessary. It’s such a tough balance.

  2. Such a wonderful reminder. I too spend too much time on the phone. To the point that my daughter now cries if I pick it up while we are outside or even inside “playing.” That was my first wake up call. Then reading this just kind of drove the point home. Wonderfully thought provoking. I’m powering down for the rest of the day!
    Alexa (Kat Biggie) recently posted…Pin It! Tuesday! {Pinterest Link Up!}My Profile

  3. Kimbra says:

    Such a wonderful reminder. I am totally guilty of spending far too much time with my iPhone and iPad. My son who is 3 has taken to video games and playing games on my iPhone as well. This is no ones fault but my own and I know I need to spend fewer hours online. Hard when the Internet is my only link to the outside world most days but I need to try harder. I have made it a rule that when we leave the house only one phone is taken with us and it is strictly for emergency purposes. No blogging, emailing, or texting when we are at the park or enjoying dinner as a family, I think it helps us stay connected, but I know we can do better.

  4. I work on this daily. When I use the phone in front of the kids I try to tell them what I am doing…”I’m sending Daddy a message about dinner tonight.”, “I have some work I need to do for a few minutes.” I try to set up specific times for us to do separate activities or when the kids naturally fall into entertaining themselves for a while, I take the opportunity to check in on the world online.

    I found Linda Stone’s article very interesting. The best example of how we teach children different styles of attentiveness, for me, was about stopping a baby from crying: My mom is the kind of person to keep putting more and more toys in front of the kids and I am the kind who uses one in many ways.

    Your post is a reminder we all need…our children are watching us and what they see affects who they will become, in more ways than we can imagine.

    (Incidentally, I have recently noticed a couple extra letters preceding your name. Congratulations on your huge accomplishment Dr. Jessica Smock!)

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks, Carisa!
      I think I’m one of those people who put out the different toys. Wasn’t that an interesting little anecdote from the article? I definitely want to read more of Linda Stone’s research. She seems to have a down to earth grasp of how difficult it is to negotiate raising children while also living in the modern age of technology.
      Jessica recently posted…Why I’m Putting Down the iPhoneMy Profile

  5. Mommyproof says:

    Thanks for this — really interesting post, and I struggle with this constantly. I have to believe that “everything in moderation” is true about device time, too — or else I’d go crazy! — but it’s definitely something I wonder/worry about. One interesting thing is that I find myself using Instagram ALL THE TIME when we’re out, like at the playground. I love love love posting pics of my son there (my “followers” there are all actual good friends in real life) and we all really enjoy staying connected that way when there’s not time to actually chat b/c well, we’re moms. I also love documenting all the “little moments” with photos that I know will help me remember these days when he’s small. But does snapping photos all the time mar the moment? Or is that just like a camera?!? xox
    Mommyproof recently posted…I know my kid is rearranging the produceMy Profile

  6. Kimberly says:

    This is spot on and I cannot agree more. Our children are so much more important than social media. When my son started school for the first time, I thought about all those times that I had put blogging and what not before him. I feel terrible about that.
    We do need to interact with our kids on a personal level and to LISTEN to them. Hearing them and listening are two very different things.
    Thank you for this reminder!
    Kimberly recently posted…Oh I Didn’t See You ThereMy Profile

  7. Julie Burton says:

    Thanks for this great post! Cell phone usage is a big issue in our house with two teenagers and two school aged kids. As my husband and I often feel frustrated with our teenagers’ obsession with their hand held devices and we want them to be more engaged with those who are physically around them instead of their friends with whom they are texting, tweeting, vining, facebooking or instagramming, it is certainly important to look at our own usage because they will certainly say, “You tell me to get off my phone but you are always on yours!”

    I think when the kids are young and moms sometimes feel isolated, our cell phones are tools for us to connect with other adults, which provides us with a mental break from thoughts of diapers, baby food and potty training (or to learn more about all of these). And we do need these breaks. But like you said, moderation is key, and being present with our kids is essential. Thanks for the reminder!
    Julie Burton recently posted…Dodging the Cancer BulletMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      It’s definitely true that there are so many different issues, depending on the age of the kid. Oh, my gosh. I can’t imagine dealing with all those social media platforms with my own kids…. I can’t handle it myself! By the way, what is “vining”?
      Jessica recently posted…Why I’m Putting Down the iPhoneMy Profile

  8. Jen says:

    This is a great post! And yea Huff Post for realizing it! You know at the end there you touched on something. In Waldorf Schooling there is this idea of “holding the space” being in the room with your child, but not actually interacting. Your child knows you are present and AWARE and so is able to continue on with whatever activity he is engaged in. I learned the hard way that laptop and cell phone did not constitute holding the space. Instead I did some needle felting, or homeschool planning. Then he had no trouble continuing on with his day.
    Jen recently posted…Our Land – Where Empathy and Wonder RuleMy Profile

  9. I try to save all that stuff for certain times of the day. The kids know I’m “working” during those times and that is when they have their earned time on their devices. I’m not saying I’m successful, but I try. I have a smartphone, but luckily it’s not that smart or I’d probably be on it way more than I already am.
    The Sadder But Wiser Girl recently posted…Wordless Wednesday: WonderMy Profile

  10. Such a meaningful post…I often wonder what effect our attention to cellphones and computers is having on our children and grandchildren. Many times I will read digital news and articles on my cellphone, i-pad or computer…what I should be doing is actually reading a book since I would like to encourage an enjoyment of reading “real” books.
    It is so important to make eye contact with a child and model behavior that you want them to copy.
    It is very annoying to talk to a child, who does not look at you and does not seem to be paying any attention to what you are saying…but if this is happening, don’t look very far to correct it, start by modifying your own behavior. I am definitely more aware after reading this article.

  11. Emily says:

    Great post Jessica…I think we all need to be mindful of our electronic usage and I do believe I am guilty of too much laptop time. I rationalize it and say to myself that it’s ok to be on my laptop while my kids are doing homework, and most of the time it probably is, but when their homework is finished and I’m still tapping away, it’s time for me to self-monitor my own behavior. We are in the process of laying down more stringent rules in our house in regards to electronics and I know it won’t be easy, but if we model ourselves as moderate users of electronics, then I’m hoping our kids will receive the right message…
    Emily recently posted…I Blog Because….My Profile

    • Jessica says:

      It’s such a fascinating and difficult issue. I’m definitely not ready to contemplate the challenges of teenagers, cell phones, and the internet! It’s even more complex when you have older kids. I’m sure it’s hard to find the balance of teaching them how to use social media in a smart way that helpful to them while also modeling that same behavior in yourself!
      Jessica recently posted…Why I’m Putting Down the iPhoneMy Profile

  12. Dani Ryan says:

    This is such an awesome post. I really struggle with my screen time. I feel like I’m forever on the computer or on my iPhone, and it needs to stop. We’re heading away for 2 weeks tomorrow and I want to think about making some changes when we come back so I can be more present with my daughter. So sad that I need to even think of that, but that is what technology seems to have done to a lot of us!!! Thanks for this. It was a good reminder of what I need to do. 🙂
    Dani Ryan recently posted…8 things that annoy me at the parkMy Profile

  13. Nina says:

    I am so with you for all of those reasons and more (like for my own peace of mind, ability to focus, stay truly connected with friends, etc.) I’ve been writing a series about trying to half my phone time for the Jewish Daily Forward. I think we’ve “talked” about it via blog comments before. Right?
    Nina recently posted…My Writing Process These DaysMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Yes, I love your series! And I’ve definitely noticed how too much screen time affects my ability to relax, sleep well, and even think well. One of the hazards and things to think about before anyone starts blogging, I guess! This is something that we’ll all be talking about and negotiating for the rest of our lives, as well as every generation to come.
      Jessica recently posted…Why I’m Putting Down the iPhoneMy Profile

  14. Sarah says:

    Great post, and I am also torn about this. For a while I wasn’t really into using my smartphone, and it drove me crazy how much my husband was on his phone, and now I find myself on my phone when I should be paying more attention to my kids. When my daughter told me it was screen-free WEEK a few weeks ago and that I shouldn’t use my phone or iPad for a week it sounded frightening! I think we can find a healthy balance between letting our kids have unstructured time without us, as well as time with our undivided attention. Thanks for posting about this!
    Sarah recently posted…Left Brain Buddha’s Guide to Starting a Meditation PracticeMy Profile

  15. Amanda Bruce says:

    I am so, so guilty of this. GREAT post. I liked the way you handled this subject – by mentioning that kids need less parental involvement at times – which I think they do – but that our attention needs to be focused when it’s there. I know that “checking out” on my IPhone can be a form of avoidance at times for me – avoiding the fear that I’m not doing enough for my child, for example. This post made me more aware of that…thanks.
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  16. Sue Diamond-Phillips says:

    Oh my word what a touchy topic – love everything you said and the points you made though – really well done. So hard when sometimes it’s my “only escape” from the constant kid-land i live in, but also is the example i’m setting! totally thought provoking.

    • Jessica says:

      I completely agree that the phone and internet can feel like a vital escape during long days with a kid! I don’t know what the answer is… Some kind of balance, I guess.

  17. Thanks for a great post and opening up a dialogue that I have really enjoyed. At this point I do not have a smart phone because I feel as if I spend so much time on my laptop at home that the time I am out and about with my kids should be the one time where I’m with them and not connected. But, I do need to cut down on the time I’m on my laptop at home. I think because I’m around the kids that it’s enough, and sometimes it may be, but I also know that if I’m always looking at a screen I’m not as engaged in what they are doing. I like the idea of having set times. Thanks for giving me something to think about! Wonderful post, I will be sharing it!
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  18. Chris Carter says:

    Oh how I just love this post… I am both convicted and informed, and I thank you for that!! I love that you share a message of challenge and inspiration with out any hint of judgment. We are all in this together, and we all need to support and encourage each other.
    Chris Carter recently posted…Parenting: It’s All RelativeMy Profile

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you, Chris! I definitely have no judgment. If I did, I would be a complete hypocrite. I’m trying but there are so many reasons and excuses to stay connected online at all times.

  19. Kate says:

    I saw your post about this in Bloppy Bloggers. So glad you posted about it because this is an amazing article. Since I have started blogging I feel the same way. I don’t feel I’m present and I feel bad about it. Congratulations on a fabulous post and for Huff picking it up!
    Kate recently posted…How I Put My Baby Girl To Bed: A ComedyMy Profile

  20. This is brilliant. I don’t think you are making too much of the guilt; you’re totally right. And I’m glad you put in that last part about it not being a call to “sanctimommy.”

    I try to hide my phone use from my son — I go to a different part of the apartment when he’s eating or use it when I’m pushing the stroller and he can’t see me. (I’m sure other people LOVE that.) I’m definitely not perfect, but my husband is terrible. So, so, so sharing this.
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  21. Found you on Bloppy Bloggers. This post serves as another reminder to me. From the get go, I don’t get on my phone when I’m in public. My dad never let us watch tv so now I don’t watch it out of habit. It’s the times late in the evening when I check my email that I have to be careful. I’m with my son all day instead of Facebook & etc, but I need to remind myself even more to save the social media for when he’s napping or when he’s gone to bed.
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  22. Jean says:

    I certainly do not appreciate reading sanctimonious posts about anything and I did not get that vibe from your writing. I’m happy you approached this topic in your talented, even-tempered way because this is something that we should all think about. I’m not proud that my 1 year old daughter puts her hand to her ear and says “ah-o” already.
    Jean recently posted…Justified Melodramatic GratitudeMy Profile

  23. Sandra says:

    OK, I’m a grandmother so maybe this doesn’t count. I put my phone away when I’m with the kids. I want to give them my full attention when I’m with them. They play enough with the phone and ipad I don’t need to encourage it. Yes, I push the swings, play soccer and clap. But isn’t that what a grandma should do as opposed to checking my blog, facebook and twitter?

    I do want them to know there is a world out there that is not total electronics.
    Sandra recently posted…Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Secrets RevealedMy Profile

  24. Lucy Ball says:

    Wow. This was excellent! My sister and I have discussed this repeatedly. How is it different staring at a book than a book on a gadget? It is. For me, I find that I have truly needed the validation of my challenges as a mom at home. Isolation isn’t good for anyone, especially those who are socially extroverted. I do find my children seem to misbehave more and engage in attention-seeking behaviors more often when I am using a device to read or interact. It’s silent so they obviously can’t see or hear what I’m thinking and how I’m attempting to work through challenges out loud. I have a goal for the summer. We are ALL going to limit our electronics to a certain time. Not sure what that is yet. But your thoughts reminded me how important limiting electronics is for teaching balance to our children.
    Lucy Ball recently posted…Social Media – Circa 900 A.D.My Profile

  25. Lisa Newlin says:

    What an excellent and insightful post! Although I don’t have kids, I have a husband and dogs, and I’ve been thinking lately that I’m not giving them enough of my time because I’m often glued to my phone. This was a nice little reminder.

    And I would hope my dogs wouldn’t learn that the phone is where it’s at, but I suppose that’s always a possibility! If I get a large long distance phone bill one month, I will know the culprits. (I will also have to call the phone company and find out why they are charging long distance, as it isn’t 1987).

    Great post and congrats on Huffington Post. That’s huge!
    Lisa Newlin recently posted…Spelling bee = E-N-T-E-R-T-A-I-N-I-N-GMy Profile

  26. Great post! Fortunately, my daughters aren’t toddlers anymore–they are 13.5, 9 and 7–and up until 6 years ago, I didn’t even own a ‘smart phone’ that could text, surf the web or allow me to check email. And, although I love a good chat with a friend, I prefer ‘in person’ to over the phone 🙂 So, fortunately when they were very small I was always pretty much engaging them. Not all of the time, but a good chunk. But now, with my blog, FB, Twitter, texting, etc….my iPhone may as well be glued to my hand! That’s not to say I’m not still attentive to them, but honestly they prefer to play with each other or the dog. So that’s when I hop on my laptop or phone….and of course while they are in school 🙂
    the calibamamom recently posted…You’re shacked up where?My Profile

  27. Britton says:

    This post speaks so true and I can see how phone usage can affect children in all the ways that you mentioned. I can admit, since I began blogging (back in August), I am always on some type of electronic, whether it be my iPhone or laptop! It came to a time last month where I just had to disconnect from EVERYTHING so that I could focus more on my children! It’s sad that I had to go to that extreme, but I enjoyed the time off! Happy SITS DAY!
    Britton recently posted…Oh YouTube…I’ve Abandoned YouMy Profile

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