Sometimes, when I spend time with my daughter, I’m not really spending time with my daughter. We could be playing together, or reading, or watching television, and as much as I adore my 18-month-old toddler, my attention isn’t always fully there.
My phone is nearby, and I’ll sneak a glance every now and then. Or if I don’t, I’ll be thinking “I should probably check it, there might be a message I need to see”.
Of course, there’s never a message I need to see.
I can easily justify my phone use. I’m keeping up to date with the news, or catching up with friends and family we can’t see in real life due to the ongoing Covid lockdown.
But that’s not always what I’m doing. Often I’ll be aimlessly scrolling through social media with no goal in mind, or reading articles that barely interest me. The other day my daughter was playing with her toys while I sat on the floor with her, half-reading an article about the making of the 1997 action move Face/Off.
If you asked me why I was reading that I honestly could not tell you.
My daughter has started to notice. If she sees me with my phone planted in front of my face she will shove it out of the way. Sometimes she will even take it from me and put it on the floor. She can’t talk yet, but I know what she’s saying: I’m here, dad, focus on me.
I know I’m not alone as a new parent with a phone habit, and smartphones and tablets are just the latest in a long line of distractions parents have always had to deal with — being distracted by checking Facebook sure beats having to check for preditors like our prehistoric ancestors.
But there are studies emerging that show how damaging distracted phone-filled parenting can be (and remember, smartphones are still a relatively new phenomenon). For example, one American study tracked hospital data against the rollout of 3G service across the country. When 3G became available in an area, hospital visits for kids under six increased ten percent. What’s more likely, that the kids were suddenly doing more dangerous things, or that the parents had stopped paying attention?
Our regular phone use means our responses to our children can be inconsistent and (for them) unpredictable. We can be present and engaged with our children only for a buzz or chime from our phone to pull our attention elsewhere — and it can happen at any time of day, all day, and that’s leaving aside those moments where we feel an urge to check our phone even though we have not had a notification.
Tracey Dennis-Tiwary is professor of psychology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and she outlined the problem with this, outlined in an article in Today’s Parent:
“If we disrupt our one-on-one time by disappearing into our smartphones, then they will learn to disconnect in similar ways. If our children learn to navigate…challenging moments with devices, they may have fewer and less flexible strategies at their disposal to cope with day-to-day social ups and downs.”
So what do we, as parents, do? Personally I can’t cut ties with my phone completely. For one thing, I’ve tried before, downgrading to a pre-smartphone-era phone, but it was too difficult. As much as I hate to admit it, I do need certain things a smartphone: maps, recipies, and banking apps. Now I’m working from home, I need an app on my phone to login securely to the laptop supplied from work.
Aside from that I still want to be able to listen to music and podcasts, to read and write on the go. My smartphone is, for better or worse — probably worse — here to stay.
So I have another plan to focus on my real life — and most importantly my daughter — when I need to.
No phone day.
One day a week at first. Maybe increasing as I go on. I’ll put my phone aside for one full day and won’t touch it.
My future plan is for that day to be Sunday, as that feels like the easiest day. I don’t work on Sundays. Even in the pre-Covid era, Sundays were slow and lazy, shops shut early and if a trip anywhere was going to happen it was to the park with my daughter. Sunday is the day I’m likely to miss my phone the least, and it means I can fully focus on spending time with my daughter.
But I decided to change things up this week and booked Tuesday off work. Usually on Tuesdays my daughter spends the day at my parents’ (they are our childcare bubble) so my wife and I can work, but with my day off she would stay at home. My wife would still work in the spare bedroom we hastily converted into a makeshift home office last year, and I would spend the day with my daughter — with no phone. Tuesday was the first no phone day.
I wasn’t sure quite what I expected from my first “no phone day” with my daughter. Maybe I secretly hoped for a life-changing ephiphancy, even though that’s not really how life works.
What I did learn — or rather, an existing view I had reinforced — was that it’s really hard to just give up on your phone. Not in the sense of those pangs of desire you get to check it for no reason, or the endorphins released by likes on a Facebook status or retweets from strangers (although all those things make it harder) but because we use our phones for everything.
It was “no phone day” sure, but my phone’s alarm woke me up in the morning. I will confess, too, that there was some mild cheating. After my shower I posted to my Instagram about my “no phone day” with my daughter. Ironic, I know, but I was interested to see what other parents thought, and besides, my daughter wasn’t in the room at the time so I felt it didn’t count as time taken away from her.
After that the phone was put aside. I couldn’t bring myself to actually turn it off (there might be an emergency where someone needs to reach me, I told myself) but I didn’t look at it throughout the day.
I noticed a few things. One was that I was more present with my daughter without the constant nagging distraction of the phone. The other was that my concept of time went out the window. I don’t wear a watch regularly at the moment (why would I? I rarely leave the house) and we don’t have any clocks (aside from one on the microwave which has always been wrong, I don’t know how to set it). Again it’s because we don’t need any with our phones and laptops. But without my phone or laptop (I wasn’t working so didn’t need it) I didn’t really know what time it was at any given point in the day — and I found that quite freeing.
The other thing was that my phone isn’t as vital as I like to tell myself. When I eventually did check my phone later that evening I found I hadn’t missed anything. No urgent messages. In fact, barely any at all. A quick check of some news apps, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter told me that I had not missed out on anything life changing either in the real world or on social media.
My next goal is to do a no phone day every Sunday and then see if I can add in more days of the week as I go. Maybe once I’ve used it to log in the work laptop I can put the phone aside all day and just be more present, generally. Because now I know I’m really not missing anything.