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Screens and Parenting: Managing “Technoference” in a Digital World

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How is your screen use impacting your relationship with your little one?

You’re at the park and find yourself scrolling through social media while your child makes their way up the slide and down again (and again, and again). Or, you’re feeding your baby when your phone buzzes. You take a quick peek and before you know it, ten minutes and 20 texts have gone by. Or, your toddler is losing it in the supermarket check-out line. Nothing is working to calm them down so you watch a video on your phone to get through the whine-a-palooza.

These are all stories of modern-day parenting. Digital media gives us a way to connect with friends, get the support we need, and just relax and feel like a person instead of a parent for a few minutes. But more and more, parents are asking how screen use is impacting their relationships with their children. Researchers even have a name for the way technology can get in the way of real-life social connections: technoference.

Here’s what we know.
ZERO TO THREE’s Millennial Connections parent survey found that 94% of parents own and use a smartphone. That’s pretty much all of us. More and more research is finding that screen use is just as difficult for us to manage as it is for our kids. Here’s what we know.

Parent technology use gets in the way of talking and connecting with kids. Heavy technology use by parents is associated with lower-quality parent-child interactions.

Parent technology use means that kids act out more to try and get our attention. Heavy technology use by parents is also associated with more reports of challenging child behavior.

Parent technology interrupts our time with children. Half of surveyed parents say that technology interrupts parent-child interactions at least three times a day (read more here). 50% of surveyed children (ages 5 to 17) agreed that their parents check their phones too much, and 36% say their parents get distracted by their phones during conversations (details here).

Technology use can make it harder to parent as a team. More technology use by parents is associated with less cooperation between them on child-rearing issues.

Check out tips on managing media at home—yours and your child’s.

Make parent-child time everyday that’s screen-free. When you are one-on-one with your child—talking, playing, giving a bath, or doing the bedtime routine—keep it screen-free. Silence your phone and turn off vibrations. Use this time to talk and connect with your little one face-to-face. (For tips on staying present when your child wants to make the jack-in-the-box pop up for the 99th time, check out this resource).
Keep phones separate when you’re at home. Screen-free time is easier when phones are put away. Make it a habit to put phones in a basket or somewhere specific (plugged into the charger on the kitchen counter). This is not about never being on your phone. Instead, it’s about choosing screen time when it doesn’t interfere with family time. If your kid is happily building a block tower on their own—that’s the perfect time to scroll Insta.

Put facetime before Facetime. It can be hard to shift gears from hanging with a friend online to dealing with a demand for MORE APPLESAUCE. But responding in a patient, kind, and timely way to our children’s needs is what builds a strong bond between us.

Commit to family mealtimes. With busy family schedules, it’s challenging to sit down every day for dinner. Instead, commit to a few family meals each week when everyone is together—with no screens—and shares a meal. Young children (even babies who aren’t talking yet) enjoy this back-and-forth time with their favorite people.
Be smart about your screen time. Sometimes our friends or family expect us to respond right away to every text or Snap. But not every “what’s up?” needs an immediate “not much.” Lots of media is designed to “suck in” our attention, and it’s OK to resist. Let people know you’re spending less time on your phone and may not respond right away, and then stick to it. If this is hard, try asking yourself: Is this an emergency? before immediately responding. You can also turn off notifications and use a tracker to monitor how much you’re on your phone (you may be surprised…I know I was!). Small changes like these add up.

Be a media role model. As our kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to set screen time rules if we’re on screens all the time too. Being a role model for how to balance screen use with other activities—play, family time, physical activity and more—helps our children learn this skill too.

Create a family media plan. Think about when and how long you want your child to be on screens, what type of content is okay for them to use, and how your family will spend screen-free time together. The American Academy of Pediatrics makes this easy with an online family media plan tool for parents.


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