I Feel No Shame for Looking at My Phone When I’m with My Son


This weekend, I took my five-year-old son on a jaunt through New York City. We lunched in Chinatown, ran amok around a playground in SoHo, and ate gelato on the Lower East Side. On the way back to the subway we stopped at another playground, where Felix made friends with two kids. And guys … keep this to yourselves, but … while they played on the sliding board, I took out my smartphone and posted a photo to Instagram!

That’s right: I’m a parent and sometimes I use a smartphone around my child. Yes, I set limits for myself. (More on that in a moment.) No, I don’t feel guilty about it. I hope that you don’t either, though it may take a bit of work these days. There’s a New York Times bestselling book about putting down the phone to get involved in parenting. And a Tumblr dedicated to capturing photos of parents on their phone, replete with snarky captions that imply these adults are missing crucial emotional moments with their kids. (Maybe they are. Though maybe they are great parents caught in a moment of distraction, or dealing with an urgent email. It’s impossible to know from one photo.)

Now we can add scientific evidence to the fire. In 2012, after an article in The Wall Street Journal about the dangers of parenting with a smartphone sparked online discussion (including a piece I wrote here on Babble), Craig Palsson, a graduate student in economics at Yale, went searching for data on the trend. Lo and behold, he found it! As AT&T rolled out wireless 3G networks in cities around the country between 2005 and 2012, injuries to children under the age of five that resulted in Emergency Room visits rose by 10%. Specifically, the injuries took place at home and not school (where teachers aren’t usually distracted by phones) and in situations where parental involvement could have made a difference (such as helping a kid down the stairs).

So it’s clear, right? Put down the phone and have healthier, injury-free children. Except that for us work-at-home parents, it’s impossible not to be connected at least some of the time. That’s why I got a smartphone in the first place — my agent would text me, “Sent an important email half an hour ago. Did you see it?” If I was out with my son then no, I hadn’t. In a perfect world, I would have said, “I’m with my son now, will deal with it later.” But when you have a book contract pending (as I did) or a piece that just posted which requires a few minutes of online promotion (as I often do) or a time-sensitive query as to whether or not you’re available for a freelance gig (which I wish I had more of) well … replying quickly is necessary. Some of us can’t afford to ditch the phone, it’s a reality of being a working parent these days.

Also, let’s be honest: it is not essential to be engaging with your child at all times. My parents certainly left me alone for great stretches of time. Instead of the Internet, my mom would yak on the phone, or have coffee with a neighbor. My dad would disappear into the backyard, or go out to play tennis or football with friends. Even this past weekend, on that Manhattan playground, the other dad, the one whose kids my son was playing with, had his eyes buried in the Sunday paper. Our kids do not need us to watch them at all times. (We can look to the French for inspiration on this.)

Indeed, Palsson himself puts the data in perspective, writing “only 6.4 out of every 1,000 parents of children 5 and under who use a smartphone experience an injury,” while “the injury rate for cars is about 10.6 per 1,000 drivers.” Parenting with a cellphone in hand is much less dangerous than getting in a car, but it’s ridiculous thinking that we would never drive with our children.

Shaming parents who smartphone is similar to shaming moms who decide not to breastfeed: it’s none of your business, really, and unless you know the entire story, it’s bad, unkind behavior. That said, I’m not writing to encourage moms and dads to walk around, smartphone in hand. Let common sense and moderation be your guide. I try to do the following:

Don’t disappear into the screen.

Yes, I scan my social media feed, but no, I don’t get absorbed in reading long articles or watching videos. I do that once my son is in bed, or when I’m on the computer.

Make some zones in your life phone-free.

I never have my phone in front of me while eating, or if I’m aware that my son is doing something that requires I keep an eye on him. If your kid needs help getting ready for school, or wants a snack, or is about to balance on the edge of a brick wall, bring your attention back to parenting.

Don’t allow yourself to become addicted.

I limit the amount I look at my phone, not just when I’m with my son, but in general. It’s easy to get hooked to that little screen, whether you’re a parent or not! I don’t always carry my phone around, nor do I stop what I’m doing — whether that’s building LEGOs or minding a hot stove — to respond whenever I receive a message.

Communicate with your kids about why you’re using your smartphone.

Don’t make it a mystery what you’re doing on the little screen, let your kids know. You’d probably do the same when out with a friend — it’s only polite. “I’m sorry,” I’ll tell my son. “I have an important message for work that I need to write, so I have to stop playing for about five minutes. I’ll come back as soon as I’m done.”

As long as you are using your smartphone smartly, you should feel no sense of shame about it. We live in a digital age, and technological tools like smartphones are a part of that. Model for your kids how to balance an online life with interactions in the real world. Eventually — sooner than you know it, probably — they’ll be doing this too!

Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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