Parents and their Screens: Why 'Do as I Say and Not as I Do' Just Isn't Going to Cut It

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At a recent Parent Ed event on kids and screens that I was moderating one question seemed to be nagging parents more than any other: How am I supposed to get my children off of their screens when I can’t seem to get off mine? We’re all guilty of focusing our attention on our phones or computers when our children are trying to interact with us. “Just a minute” “I’m almost done here” “Hold on I’m in the middle of a text” are popular refrains for 21st century parents. However, I’ve noticed a heartening trend taking place; many parents are becoming aware of the hypocrisy of asking their children to do something more constructive with their time, while they themselves while away countless minutes and hours scrolling through their own social media feeds.


According to Common Sense Media’s research, 69% of parents check their devices at least hourly, 48% feel the need to respond to texts and social media messages instantly, and 41% of teens report that their parents get distracted by their devices when they are spending time together. We all know that as parents we hold the primary influence over our children’s behavior. If they see us engaged in certain behaviors the implicit message to them is that those behaviors are “normal” and appropriate. Your child may not have a smartphone yet, but you can bet that once they do they’ll be using your example as their baseline for how and when to use it.  It’s time to face the fact that “do as I say and not as I do” is not going to cut it when it comes to teaching our kids healthy screen use habits. So how can we as parents make sure that we are modeling the behavior that we’d like to see in our kids? Here are a few tips to get you started:

1. Become Conscious

One of the problems with smartphones is that they are addictive by design. All of the social media and news apps are designed to intentionally to keep us coming back for more. According to Tristan Harris, ex-Design Ethicist for Google, “If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing.’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket: When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got; When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got;When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.” Being aware of how you are using your phone and the ways in which it keeps a grip on you is the first step to making a change.

2. Keep Tabs on Yourself

If you’re the type of person who really has a hard time putting down the phone, you’re not alone. Consider installing an App like Moment. Moment keeps track of how much you use your phone in a given day. It will show you where you’re spending most of your time so that you can make conscious choices about how you want your time spent.

3. Practice Flexing Your “Disconnection Muscles”

When I decided to make a change in my screen use habits, one of the challenges I instituted for myself was a daily promise to not pull out my phone while either waiting in line for coffee, sitting bored in traffic or eating alone at a restaurant. We have become so unaccustomed to sitting with ourselves and doing nothing that we are now profoundly uncomfortable with the simple act of being. Give yourself the challenge and sit with the discomfort of being the only person in a line of 20 who is facing up. If you practice this every day it will become easier and you will naturally become more mindful of when and where you choose to disappear into your phone.

4. Make a Promise

First make a promise to yourself, and then to your kids, that you will not check your phone while you are spending time together. Explain that if there is an emergency or something really important you need to do online you will go do it and be right back. It will be hard for you to resist the beeps and buzzes, but the truth is you’re probably not missing anything too urgent. Put your phone out of site and on mute and enjoy being present with your kids.

Raising our kids in this new environment of constant enticement is no easy task. It’s challenging for them and if we’re honest, it’s just as challenging for us. But taking the time and making the choice to consciously control our device use is the first step in ensuring that we Reconnect with our families and instill healthy media habits in our kids --It may feel uncomfortable in the short term, but in the long term your kids will thank you for it.