Fatherhood

How to avoid the smartphone parent trap

Modern technology is wonderful. But is there a risk it's impacting your parenting for the worse?

Thanks to the ceaseless wonders of modern technology, I receive continual updates from my daughter’s nursery throughout the day via an app – activities, meals, even nappy changes. Racked as I am with guilt for placing her in full-time childcare, I’m grateful, even if it only makes me more anxious, not less.

Granted, I probably don’t need notifying that my daughter’s nappy was wet or, er, ‘soiled’. Still, it’s hard to imagine what parents did before smartphones – blithely assume everything was OK at nursery? That the teenage babysitter would deal with any emergency on date night, however unlikely?

Now, parents look at their smartphones almost continuously, often instead of at their children. In one study, kids failed to hold the attention of their ‘caregivers’ while at the playground in 74 per cent of the two-minute intervals recorded. Those children were more likely to engage in risky behaviour: five falls were documented, three while caregivers were distracted, and none serious. A third of the time, the distraction was a smartphone.

“You read studies about parents who pull out their smartphones as soon as they sit down for a family meal and ignore their kids”

In fairness, smartphones are endlessly compelling ‘slot machines’, to borrow a phrase from a Silicon Valley whistleblower, designed to exploit vulnerabilities in our ancient psychological operating systems. ‘Because our primal instinct to connect
is so strong, it’s difficult to resist checking a device in the middle of a conversation with a friend or a bath time with a child – reducing the quality of the richer interaction right in front of us,’ writes Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, which prompted me, among other things, to delete all the social media apps off my smartphone (OK, apart from Instagram).

It’s come to something when a professor of computer science such as Newport is proposing we log off more. But then you read studies about parents who pull out their smartphones as soon as they sit down for a family meal then proceed to ignore, get impatient with, and even physically push away their kids.

Your attention is valuable to social media titans, but more so to developing infants, who can be emotionally distressed and less explorative if you’re looking at your phone. ‘Technoference’ has also been linked to issues such as delayed speech, hyperactivity and temper tantrums. To say nothing of the problems caused by children’s own screen time. Not for nothing did Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both restrict their offspring’s access to their products.

It might be impractical to give up smartphones, but parents and children can survive without them. Ever since my daughter swatted mine out of my hand irritatedly, I try not to look at it around her. Almost all messages can wait until she’s dropped off at nursery or asleep. It’s permanently on ‘do not disturb’ and configured so the only calls that come through are from my wife or nursery. Well, there could be an emergency.

Jamie Millar is a father of two and definitely not typing this on his iPhone