I’ve never really thought about limiting screen time until a few days ago, when I was sitting on the living room floor building a Lego Batcave with my five-year-old son.
I instinctively reached into my back pocket for my iPhone.
I unlocked it and refreshed my emails.
‘Mum!’ my son said, as I began typing a response.
‘One minute…’ I replied, barely looking up.
My son continued talking to me but his words barely registered as I typed away feverishly with my right thumb.
‘Mum, I wish you would listen to me,’ he sighed, crestfallen.
As he did so I felt a pang of guilt.
We all know how annoying – not to mention frustrating – it is when you’re talking to someone and they only half-listen because their eyes are glued to their phone.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve effectively ignored him or his brother because I’m concentrating on my phone
Suddenly, I realised I’d made my son feel exactly the same. And the truth is, it wasn’t the first time.
While all parents understand how important it is to restrict our children’s screen time, it made me question if I should actually be paying more attention to how much time I spend glued to a screen.
When I read recent reports which referred to the dangers of distracted parenting and ‘smartphone orphans’ – children who are neglected because their parents are on their screens all the time – I began to reflect.
Thankfully my boys don’t want for much – materially or emotionally. They’re smothered with love and fortunate enough to have a father who works hard to provide security, and a mother who works part-time so she can be there.
Parents being glued to their phones while ignoring their children can negatively impact their relationship
But although I’m always there in body, was I guilty of ‘technoference’ – a term coined by psychologists which describes when phones get in the way of being engaged with our children?
Sadly, I realised I am, on many occasions, and suspected it was having a negative impact on them.
So I spoke to Amanda Seyderhelm, a certified play therapist and author of Isaac and the Red Jumper, and Helping Children Cope with Loss and Change.
She said: ‘Parents being glued to their phones while ignoring their children can negatively impact their relationship. Children don’t just see their parents are busy, they feel them withdraw from them emotionally, they feel they are unavailable and it makes them grumpy.’
In truth, my iPhone is rarely more than a few centimetres from my side.
I use my phone to check my bank balance, make payments, do the food shop, buy clothes, get directions
We don’t have a landline, so it’s my sole means of communication with the outside world.
More than that though, whilst I absolutely love spending the majority of my time with my boys, motherhood can be lonely at times. I use it to message friends and family, to feel connected through various apps, and keep up to date with current affairs.
I use my phone to check my bank balance, make payments, do the food shop, buy clothes, get directions, look-up the most exasperating questions my five-year-old throws at me – such as what country does the Manchester City player Sergio Ageuro come from. (Argentina, in case you’re interested.) It means the boys can Facetime their grandparents, and I can hoard photographs.
There are boundless benefits, but drawbacks too.
Just the other morning, I got halfway to dropping my son off at holiday club when I realised my phone wasn’t in my bag. Instantly I began to panic.
What if someone was trying to get hold of me? What if the car broke down? What if I ran out of petrol?
It was ridiculous, especially as our car has never broken down or run out of petrol, and the chances of anyone needing to contact me before 9am are slim to none.
Make your phone off-limits when your child comes home from school. Put it on silent until they go to bed
Rationally, I knew I should continue driving and it would be there when I got home. But I just couldn’t. Even though it would make us late, I turned the car around and returned home to retrieve it.
The desire to have my phone with me at all times even restricts what I wear – half of my skirts and dresses are redundant because they don’t have a pocket!
More shamefully, I realised my children often saw my nose buried in my phone, my response to their questions delayed while I answered a not-so-urgent Facebook message.
Amanda Seyderhelm explains the impact this has on my boys: ‘Phones are attention-sappers and children need our attention, so we can listen and hear about their day, their anxieties, their good times. The mobile phone has become the third person in their relationship.’
Putting a boundary around using our phone has become as important as limiting the screen time children have
The more I thought about it, the more I realised there were times I simply reached for my phone through habit rather than necessity.
That worries me – but, realistically, I couldn’t live without it.
‘Parents pushing prams while texting is now a common image, and while getting rid of phones is not the solution, I believe putting a boundary around using our phone has become as important as limiting the screen time children have,’ says Seyderhelm.
‘Unless it’s an emergency, make your phone off limits when your child comes home from school. Put it on silent until they go to bed and pay attention to them so you don’t miss out on them growing up.’
Following Amanda’s advice, I’ve started making a concerted effort to reduce the amount of screen time I have when I’m with the boys. I’m leaving my phone in the car or in my bag when we’re at the park or in the garden, so I avoid the temptation to check it.
I’m determined the boys don’t have to make do with a mum who’s constantly distracted and making them feel second-best
Things like swimming are good too, because you’re totally immersed (physically and mentally) in what you’re doing, so it eliminates the desire and ability to grab your phone. And I’m trying to do all my online banking, shopping and ordering once the boys have gone to bed.
It hasn’t been an overnight success, but the important thing is my mindset has changed.
I’m determined the boys don’t have to make do with a mum who’s constantly distracted and making them feel second best.
While the phrase ‘smartphone orphans’ might sound dramatic, the damage I could be doing to my boys can’t be underestimated.
In an age where we don’t think twice about showering our children with endless indulgences, I’ve realised that perhaps I need to be more mindful of the fact that what they really crave is our undivided, focused and uninterrupted attention.