You Can’t Enforce Screen-Time Limits If You’re Always on Your Phone

Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

“Mom,” my 6-year-old asked recently, “why does your bathing suit make your butt look like two butts?” Most kids, I think, say hurtful things like this without realizing it, albeit with an honesty that’s (kind of) cute. But when my kids, who are 6 and 3, remark that I’m on my phone too much, it stops me in my tracks. It shames me immediately and sometimes, frustrated at being shamed by my kids, I snap at them. It’s classic!

The exigencies of work have made it socially legitimate to be on your phone at almost any given time. You might see me on my phone at a restaurant and think, Oh, she must have to check in. Her brow is furrowed, she must be reading an important email. But who am I kidding? I’m a freelance writer and I work for a university — great sums of money are not being made and lost in my emails. When it comes to smartphone use, we’re several years into a case of very severe post-capitalist mission-creep. What started out as the expectation that you’d be reachable at any time by your boss has evolved into it being totally fine to scroll through Instagram while your kids try to talk to you in the grocery-store checkout line.

Of course, there are exceptions; some people — executive assistants with demanding bosses come to mind — really are on call all the time, bless their souls. But let’s be honest: Most of us, in 2017, can get away with being unreachable more often than we admit. We’re doing a lot of leisure-scrolling, which is fine, some of the time. (You’ll deny me access to my beloved group texts over my dead body.) But with increasing concern about the impact that heavy smartphone use has on teens, it would behoove parents to reconsider their own habits.

Earlier this summer, my Facebook feed lit up with reactions to an Atlantic story called “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” I’ve done graduate research on parents and smartphone use, so I felt duty-bound to read on though the very thought of a generation being “destroyed” by phones made me involuntarily lift my left hand and start doing the jacking-off gesture.

The article was adapted from Jean Twenge’s forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us, a title that makes writing a synopsis feel a bit redundant. Apparently post-millennials, labelled “iGen” by Twenge, stay at home on their phones, don’t talk to their parents much, and aren’t out there screwin’ in the backseats of their rusty old Ford Tempos like she and her Gen-X peers did. They’re more prone to depression, less resilient — like millennials but somehow even worse.

The article was being shared by parents in my feed who are particularly active Facebook users, and this, more than the content of the piece itself, seemed to illustrate the very problem being parsed in Twenge’s article. It also reminded me of something I observed while doing research a few years ago on the smartphone-use habits of a group of mothers with young children.

I had set out to observe when, and for how long, the moms in my study used their phones while they were with their kids. I focused on a small group for my study: a dozen mothers with kids between the ages of 2 and 8 who had emigrated to Montreal (where I live) from the English-speaking Caribbean. In small academic studies, researchers start with very well-defined groups with a lot in common, and if they find a pattern, they are then able to see if it holds in a larger sample. As an English-speaking researcher, my challenge in Montreal was finding a tight community of English speakers, and through word of mouth, I became acquainted with a group of Caribbean-born women who all attended the same church.

I wondered if a pattern might emerge — if, say, phone use happened most often during “stolen moments” in between other tasks — and what was going on around these moms while they used their phones. I asked the participants in my study to install a use-tracker onto their phones for a period of a week (QualityTime for Android users, and Moment for moms with iPhones). After the week had passed, we got together and went over the use reports. I asked them to recall what was going on around them in instances when they were on their phones for a relatively long period — say, stretches of longer than five minutes.

I found that most often the moms’ longest stretches of phone use coincided with their kids’ screen time. During that respite, a mom would settle in for some Facebook, or a game, or some texting or emailing for work. (The particular population I was working with wasn’t active on Instagram yet, although I’d be willing to bet if I checked in with them today, they would be.) Regularly, these sessions would extend toward a half hour or more. Often, if a mom was engrossed in her own screen time, she would allow an extension on her kids’, to buy her a few more minutes.

I didn’t intend to make a judgment call on these moms’ phone-use habits while analyzing the data; I was looking for patterns. I wasn’t looking for bad news, or for warning signs about the crumbling bonds of family or attention spans or whatever. I was curious about how smartphones have changed our domestic routines, and shaped the way we occupy space in our homes. Where do we sit, and for how long? Where do we pause, and how do we experience our phones as leisure? These were some of the questions that inspired my research. For the most part, the moms I spoke to seemed pretty comfortable with their own phone-use habits, and those of their kids. Nonetheless, the relationship between a mother’s screen time and her kids’ was a conspicuous pattern. While scanning the heated threads about the Atlantic piece, I wondered if it’s possible to enforce phone-use limits on your kids that you’re unable to adhere to yourself.

Acknowledging — or making the accusation — that we’re cyborgs doesn’t do justice to the intimacy of our relationships with our devices. Sometimes study participants would hand me their phones briefly while I helped install or navigate the use-tracker app. I was compelled to handle their phones gently, as though they were vulnerable extremities. For many of us, that’s exactly what they are. So how dare I suggest that mothers ought to feel guilt and shame about our phone use, on top of all the guilt and shame we already feel? As we compulsively tally our shortcomings — we don’t volunteer in the classroom enough, our kids won’t eat vegetables, our homes are a mess — do we really need to add phone use to the pile?

I’m not interested in telling other mothers what to do, but my own habits worry me. My family and I recently returned to Montreal after a month in the U.S., where I didn’t have a data plan. For days at a time I left my phone by the bed. Not being able to check my phone after parking the car, or while the kids played at the park, felt like an alleviation of some cosmic burden. My phone is a mild irritant in the body of my household, an irritant that creates a kind of energetic inflammation. An itchiness. My kids raise their voices at me while I’m on my phone. Their whining goes up several notes. My 3-year-old says “show me your eyes” when I talk to him while on my phone. He’s been saying that since he was 2.

Meanwhile, my kids live under pretty draconian screen-time rules. We don’t have an iPad; they hardly watch TV. I don’t have any games on my phone. We absolutely set these rules in part to avoid some of the negative outcomes that Twenge details in her book excerpt. We don’t want our kids to use entertainment as a crutch or safety blanket. We want them to develop the ability to make themselves happy. But at this point, they’re doing better in this department than I am.

Maybe it’s different for those of us who remember life Before; we’re forced to chant our tedious, irrelevant comparisons. My dad and I shared an email address until I went to college — it didn’t occur to me to get my own. I had boyfriends who would email me, and my dad would print out their emails and deliver them to me in my room. I don’t think he read them; I certainly didn’t worry about it at the time. Maybe I wouldn’t think twice about how and when I use my phone if I never knew life without one. Or maybe my perspective is essential if I want to get better at using this tool.

The damage of this mission-creep is done. The groove in our brain that compels us to reach for our phones during a moment of boredom is so, so deep. Maybe approaching our phones as tools might help parents get a handle on how and when we use them. Rather than shaming ourselves into “breaking the addiction,” we can think of ourselves as journeymen on a long road toward tool-mastery. This discourse is gaining traction, but we’re still in the lame phase where people are compelled to boast about their digital fasts on social media, forgetting that the first rule of digital fasting is you do not post about digital fasting.

Treating our device-use habits as foregone conclusions but our kids’ as cause for alarm is more than hypocritical; it’s unimaginative. We expect our kids to grow up in the image of Kevin from the Wonder Years while we’re hungrily scrolling through the ‘gram at breakfast. It’s second nature to model good behavior when it comes to saying “please” and “thank you,” but we will go to crazy lengths to avoid putting down our own phones, including hiring exorbitant consultants to create a discipline-panopticon in our own homes. I relish any opportunity to blame the free market for my woes, but this time it’s on us. There is so much incentive to keep scrolling on our phones. We’re the only ones who can decide when enough is enough.

Parents Who Enforce Screen Time Should Think About Their Own