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Why constantly checking your phone could damage your child’s development

| OCT 21, 2016

Have you been pretending to listen/watch/play with your beloved offspring, while secretly checking your emails, and thinking you’re getting away with it? Well, you’re not.  You’re damaging their key cognitive development, according to a new study that says parents distracted by their mobile phones ‘may raise’ children with a short attention span. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

Frankly I’m clinging to the word ‘may’ in all this.  Because if a distracted parent can negatively affect a child’s concentration, I may as well have bought two goldfish instead of spawning my own kids.

Multi-tasking mums

The study was published earlier this year, but only caught my (wandering) eye this week, as I’ve become increasingly aware I spend too much time staring at my phone and not enough time looking at my children. 

My catchphrase is ‘in a minute’ and even when I do stop and engage, I’m rarely more than five feet from my mobile.  Ready to pounce on a text, or check my mail (again) just in case a life-changing message pops up.  It never does, although that Nigerian prince did sound promising…

In my defence, as a freelance writer and a working mum it’s hard to manage my time effectively.  I have to juggle work with the 3pm pick up and various after school activities.  So yes, I multi task – and my iPhone makes this a whole lot easier.  While one child is at gymnastics I do the online banking, while the other is at karate I research my next feature.

Caregivers whose eyes wander while their children play could be a “red flag for future problems” with key cognitive development milestones.

At this very moment I am sat at my kitchen table at 6.30am trying to finish this article before my kids get up and the madness of pre-school preparation begins.  Today I need to get swimming stuff ready, source healthy snacks and create a costume for a Halloween party that Jenny Beavan would be proud of.  Actually, scrap that – it needs to pass my daughter’s muster and she’s a far harsher critic than any Oscar-winning bag lady.

Missing out


I thought achieving this much somehow made me a better mum.  Yes, I’m totally stressed out, but at least I’m getting stuff done.  But I have begun to realise I’m missing out on the important stuff.  I’m always here for my children, but never really present.  And then I read this report.

Using head-mounted eye tracking the study recorded gaze data as parents played with their one year old child.  According to psychologist Professor Chen Yu who led the research, caregivers whose eyes wander while their children play could be a “red flag for future problems” with language acquisition, problem-solving and other key cognitive development milestones.

My two kids are well past this crucial developmental age, but they are still young enough to be heavily influenced by my behaviour.  But is this research just another thing for working mums to feel guilty about?  After all, we are generally the primary ‘caregivers’.  My husband gets to walk out the door at 8.50 (with the kids in tow, mind you.  He does the morning drop off.  And thank god for that). And isn’t expected back until 6pm at the earliest, when he gets to leave work at the office, and be ‘fun dad’.  He’s the jam, I’m the bread and butter.  Although, he’s also prone to parenting with one hand and checking his phone with the other.

The ultimate distraction

Mobiles aren’t to blame per se. Parents were distracted long before this modern technology took over.  I can’t remember my mum ever playing with me; she was too busy cooking and caring for the family.  And listening to Radio 4.

The difference with parenting today is we are expected to be our child’s carer and their best friend.  Playing is no longer child’s play, allowing us time to get on with a few chores or check our email.  If you’re not on the floor with them, creating a Lego structure that Kevin McCloud would declare a ‘triumph’, then we’re failing.

However, phones have taken daily distractions to a whole new level.  They’re the ultimate weapon in the war for our attention, offering us a constant source of entertainment and information.  This can be great on the daily commute, but it can also be destructive.

I used to carry my laptop around the house the way Paris Hilton clutches her chihuahua.  And no, that’s not a euphemism.

My mobile phone usage falls into the latter camp.  I obsessively check my phone at traffic lights, in between courses at Sunday lunch and even on the toilet (and I’m not talking number twos). I know I’m not alone. Research by Nottingham Trent University revealed the average person checks their device 85 times a day.

Digital detox


So I set myself a challenge.  PUT DOWN YOUR PHONE AND SLOWLY STEP AWAY.

I haven’t ditched the phone completely, that would be foolish.  But I am trying to separate my work life from home life.  I am attempting a digital detox, which essentially involves two things:

  1. Not looking at my phone when I’m with my children. Unless it actually rings I have to leave it alone.
  1. Leaving my laptop in my office at home. I used to carry my laptop around the house the way Paris Hilton clutches her chihuahua. And no, that’s not a euphemism.  I even took it to bed with me, although that was primarily for watching TV and not working.  You can’t beat Cold Feet in bed.  I mean the ITV series, not literally having cold feet. I hate that, don't you?
Would you take a call or start texting in the middle of a meeting?  Treat your children with the same respect.

    When my kids get up in the morning or when they come out of school I put my phone away.  If we’re out together, I try to leave it at home.  That way I’m not tempted to have a sneaky look.  I’ll admit it’s hard at times.  Checking my phone is like a nervous tick.  It’s also a great way of getting s*** done.

    If I’m sat on the side while my daughter does her lengths, or with my son ‘watching’ Teen Titans Go, the urge to check my phone and get a few jobs done is often overwhelming.  Just one tiny look can’t hurt, can it?

    But one look leads to an email that ‘must be sent’ and then they’ve lost me.  So I’m trying really, really hard to stick with the programme.

    Mindful parenting

    Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

    • Don’t set yourself up to fail. Set realistic targets on when and how you can use your phone.  This will ensure more quality time with your children, but allow you time to get jobs done. 
    • Put your phone on airplane mode. This a great way of avoiding the temptation to Google around. 
    • Set times when you can check and respond to emails. People won’t respect you any less for replying later that day, or the next morning.
    • Carry a pen and notebook. You can still make lists and get stuff done (I love a list) but it means your children don't have to see you glued to a screen.  Again.
    Even if this detox thing is too late to improve my kids’ cognitive development at least I’ll be watching them fail.
      • If you do need to work when your children are around, go to your office (if you’re lucky enough to have one) or sit in a quiet corner. Tell them you need to do some work and set a time limit on how long you’ll be.
      • Similarly, if you need to use your phone (and you will) explain what you’re doing. Would you take a call or start texting in the middle of a meeting?  Treat your children with the same respect and ask for five minutes to get the job done and then put your phone away again.
      • Investing in one-on-one time with your child leads to better behaviour. Children need an emotional connection and if they don’t get it they will try to get your attention in other negative ways.  According to Triple P Parenting, just 10-15 minutes a day of undivided attention can lead to a measurable improvement.

      Two weeks in, am I a better person?  No.  Am I a better parent?  Possibly…. Am I more present? Absolutely.  So even if this detox is too late to improve my kids’ cognitive development at least I’ll be watching them fail.

      Charlotte Ricca Smith is a journalist and blogger who writes about real health, real women and real life.

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