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Can You Hear Me Now?

What parents need to know about their cell phones

By Bonnie Harris:

Once upon a time there was a family and they all had phones even the baby. But one day the mail man plopped a chest of gold and you only have it for one day. But the parents were too busy to put things in their wallet. The mother went click click, the father went tap tap, the baby went peep peep. The next day the mail man took the chest. The next day they packed for vacation but they forgot the phone. They went on vacation and had shakes and chocolates and everything. But when they got back they pressed a phone button and got a burn across the hand because they hadn’t used it in a long time and they never used the phone all day again.
I made this book cause my parents always use their phones.

By Riley Rose, age 6

Much has been written about restricting children’s screen time, internet access, and video gaming in hope’s of insuring their safety and well-being. It’s a tough job monitoring our children’s activities on screen devices, hoping to protect them from cyberspace predators and bullies. Many parents frantically try to control screen time use fearing video game addictions, no outdoor playtime, and disconnection with the family. Little, however, has been written about the perspective of the child when it is the parents who are unavailable and distant—victims of their own screen dependencies.

The Brave New World

Most twenty and thirty-something parents are blithely unaware of how their screen time, especially cell phone use, affects their children. The use of technological devices is second nature to them and, since they did not experience their own parents’ use when they were young, they have no shared experience with their children.

The child’s perception of most experiences is often disregarded by parents uneducated in the inner workings of the child’s brain and the input of external data on that brain. The developmental stage of egocentrism in the first six years of a child’s life, together with an immature prefrontal cortex not yet ready to analyze incoming data, means that the young child takes it like it is.

If dad is on his cell phone, his preschooler is unable to understand what dad is doing, that it has nothing to do with her, and that he will be with her in a minute or ten. Egocentrism means everything is about me, I am the focus and the cause of everything in my life, hence the message to her is more likely to be, I’m unimportant.

In her story, Riley, who is developmentally on the outside edge of the egocentric stage of her development, is able to see precious opportunities that her parents are missing out on (the pot of gold) by spending time on their cell phones. Precious time with her. Thus she is missing out on precious time with her parents.

We have a new culture of parents who are accustomed to having the world accessible to them in their pockets. Parents talk or text when they are pushing a stroller, driving a car, supervising playtime, etc., instead of attending to or interacting with their children. Unintentionally the message sent to the child is I’m unavailable. You’re on your own. Certainly hovering and over-involvement is not recommended and interferes with growing independence. But when a parent’s attention is often taken up with a hand-held screen, and the child more often than not gets a frustrated just a minute response, the child perceives that she is less important than the screen. Is it any wonder children demand attention with louder and more dramatic behaviors meant to draw the parent back in their direction?

Riley’s vacation time with her family, as she describes in her story, was blissful with shakes and chocolate and undistracted time with her parents off their devices. Certainly life offers up enough distractions to teach children that their parents have many other jobs in life besides parenting. Do we really want to add our addiction for constant connection to the outside world to their already frustrated attempts to gain our undivided attention?

Hope springs eternal for Riley that upon arrival home to the forgotten phones, her parents will get burned, learn their lesson, and never use them again. What children want more than anything from their parents is time—time that is growing shorter and shorter.


No teaching tool is more powerful than modeling. It has been wisely said that we need to be the people we want our children to become. When we are, they will be that and more. Children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.

Being on the phone and unavailable to a child is nothing new. The telephone has brought with it enormous challenges for generations of parents and frustrations for their children who demand attention when their parents are unavailable. What is new is that our phones now go with us everywhere we go. And it’s my phone as opposed to the phone. It has become our favorite toy, our most important possession, and a new body part. No wonder even tiny children want to play with them.

It is the job of parents to own and take responsibility for their actions, emotions, and desires and never blame them on their children. “You make me so mad” sends the unintended message that you are responsible for my feelings. “Why do I always have to yell ten times to get you to do what I say?” tells the child that you are responsible for my yelling.

We must also take responsibility for the messages we send our children with our use of tech devices. If our devices are apparently so valuable to us, where can we expect our child’s focus to land? What are we modeling for our innocent, egocentric children? Earlier and earlier children are demanding their own cell phones, iPads, and iPods. 31% of 8 to 10-year-olds have cell phones. Earlier and earlier children are getting hooked into the unemotional, non-interactive world of cyberspace where anything goes.

Tips for Parent On-Screen Use

To take control of your modeling, a few simple tips can be the answer:

  • Put devices away when you are in the presence of your child.
  • If you must have your cell phone available, keep it on vibrate and check messages later.
  • A stay-at-home parent can choose times of the day for use when the child is napping, in school, playing alone or with friends.
  • When you go out with your child, leave your cell phone at home as often as possible.
  • If you are on a cell phone around your child, make sure to use a headset.
  • Play video games when your children are sleeping unless you are playing age-appropriate games with them.
  • When you must be on your phone or computer, respond with understanding to your child’s anger and frustration.

It’s simple to take responsibility for damaging modeling that can initiate children to the temptations of the technological world. All it takes is awareness of what you look like to your child on a cell phone or iPad and setting standards for yourself that will serve as your child’s most important teaching.

Children’s cell phone use

Cell phones are a way of life and a tremendous convenience and aid. Naturally children want them as soon as possible, and parents rest easier when their children are reachable. Tips on the when and how of getting your child a cell phone are abundant on the internet. In addition it is imperative to ask yourself some important questions about your role in your child’s cell phone use:

  • Are you asking your child to comply with a double standard of do as I say, not as I do?
  • Is it okay with you if your child models your cell phone use?
  • Does your child need a cell phone or want one because every one else has one?
  • Are you able to withstand your child’s disappointment if you say no?
  • Will your child be self-disciplined enough to follow rules you both agree on or does impulse and temptation still drive his behavior?
  • Will your child use the cell phone to check in with you, ask your advice about something, or let you know her whereabouts or simply text her friends? Does she often borrow someone else’s phone to reach you?
  • Are you able to educate your child on proper cell phone etiquette that you back up with your own?
  • Will your child use a headset as you do?
  • Consider the research from other countries on potential brain damage and make an educated decision on when a cell phone is safe for your child.

Take Responsibility

It will not serve your child to avoid his anger by giving in, assuaging his demands, and buying him a cell phone, and then hold unrealistic expectations for his responsible use—especially if your modeling has not been exemplary. The first step is to pay attention to your own cell phone behavior, take responsibility for how it has affected your child, and change whatever behavior you do not want to see in your child.

It takes empathic observance to see the world from the child’s point of view. Most children are not able to directly say, “Mom, I don’t like it when you are on your phone and not paying attention to me.” But their behavior will tell you if you know how to interpret it. Mostly we just blame our children for bad behavior and pay no attention to what provoked it. Then we get enraged with them, especially teens, when they behave irresponsibly.

If you must use your phone and your child acts out, validate her cues with, “I bet you don’t like it when I am on my phone. It must seem like I’m not even here. I promise that if I need to make a call, I will keep it as short as possible. You can come and sit on my lap while I make it.” Validation will help your child know that her feelings are appropriate even when she can’t get what she wants. We must set the stage now for our child’s behavior later.

Riley’s parents are lucky to have Riley’s perceptive story to clue them in to what her world looks and feels like. Most remain in the dark when attention is on the next text rather than the child’s view of Mom texting.

Many parents have addictions or at least dependencies on their cell phones and other screen devices that create chasms between themselves and their children causing communication breakdown later in the parent/teen relationship when communication is so necessary. Let’s make sure we are not sending messages and modeling irresponsible behavior we least intend.

Bonnie Harris, a parenting specialist for 25 years, is the director of Connective Parenting and is known for her pioneering mindset shift out of the reward-and-punishment model to a connected relationship. She conducts workshops and speaks on parenting topics internationally and is the author of "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live With". Her website is www.bonnieharris.com.

The above article first appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Nurture Magazine.

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