Does My Cell Phone Addiction Make Me a Bad Parent?

The other day, I dug into a luscious piece of key lime pie while getting a pedicure. It was so heavenly that I didn’t even notice my toddler daughter exploring how perfectly an entire set of knives fit into the holes of an uncovered electrical outlet.

Just kidding. What I actually did was chat on the phone while pushing my daughter in her stroller to the grocery store. But you would just as soon think I was an indulgent mom with an about-to-be-maimed kid given all the admonishments these days about oblivious parents glued to their cell phones.

I readily confess that I’m addicted to my phone. I catch up with my own mother while monitoring my daughter at the playground. I reply to texts while we’re waiting in line at the post office. I glance at emails while we’re walking to a friend’s house. From the scornful glances I get on the street, you would guess that I was Joan Crawford and the iPhone was my wire hanger.

Worse than the silent judgments imposed by strangers is the media, for whom “distracted parenting” has become an endless topic of shrill news reports. In her weekly personal health column for The New York Times a couple years ago, Jane Brody levied her stern judgment against “the mothers and nannies I see [who] are tuned in to their cell phones, BlackBerrys, and iPods, not their young children.” An op-ed in the Boston Globe essentially blamed cell phone use among mothers for stunting their babies’ emotional development. In a heartbreaking episode of Dateline NBC, a handful of school-age children confessed to feeling neglected by their perpetually chatting and texting moms and dads. “That’s right, parents,” said Kate Snow, the show’s host. “The need to always be plugged in is sending our kids a message that they’re not important.”

Oh dear. Just because I don’t spend every moment outside with my daughter identifying birds by their genus and species, is she destined for a speech delay? If I periodically check email on my phone when we’re playing ball in the park, will she grow up feeling unloved, on a collision course to becoming a depressed self-mutilating anorexic?

Like any addict, my first response was denial. I don’t have a problem! Plenty of people are all but surgically attached to their cell phones these days, so why the special scorn for those who happen to be mothers? Truthfully, despite all the reports and warnings, I haven’t seen mothers who don’t keep a steady eye on their kids even while they are using their phones. It’s called multi-tasking and we’re actually quite good at it. The particular disdain for the iconic Mother-Pushing-Stroller-While-Talking-on-Phone seems oblivious to the fact that, especially in urban areas, your stroller is your car. It’s a mode of transportation to get your kids from point A to point B, not a quality-time activity that warrants undivided attention and communication.

Still, I was effectively guilt ridden and decided to try and modify my behavior. I left my phone on silent in my bag when we were out together. I took deep breaths and reminded myself that no email or call was so important that it couldn’t wait until later. That lasted about two days. I felt disconnected from my peers, but also hamstrung – unable to communicate quickly, work out logistics, and get things done.

Which, again, made me wonder about this media-led charge that I’m doing something bad to my kid just by keeping up with modernity. I don’t actually spend a large portion of my time with my daughter talking, texting or emailing. And I abide by the good mommy rule book in most other ways, like playing with her indoors and out, labeling things we see with words and reading her a dozen books a day. Is my habit of punctuating long stretches of undivided attention by communicating with others really that bad?

Because my guess is, like most things in life, talking and texting while parenting is about striking the right balance. A kid whose parent is constantly absorbed in a screen won’t be very pleased, but neither will a mother trying to manage a busy life who denies herself access to the very tool that makes the modern parenthood juggling act so much easier.

Zero to Three, a national nonprofit devoted to infant and toddler development, seems to back up my theory. The organization notes that babies see your cell phone as an “annoying rival” for your attention and recommends resisting using it especially while you’re out together, but the group also advises realistic moderation, offering tips on how to occupy your child while you’re on phone and confirming that a healthy kid should eventually know how to “cope with waiting her turn and amusing herself” while your attention is briefly elsewhere.

Nowadays, I try to limit my phone use when I’m with my daughter, especially if we’re out. But there’s no more self-flagellation. My guilt has waned. Not long ago we went to the zoo, and even though I had to reply to a couple emails while there, she knew her alpacas from her baboons by the time we left. We had chatted up a storm together and were both perfectly happy.

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