Mobile phones: do parents need to turn them off as much as their children?

Today whilst sitting in a local café I saw something vaguely disturbing – which I seem to see almost every day now. This may be rather an unusual subject for a blog, but I just had to sit down and write this piece. A parent had obviously just picked up his daughter from school – she was maybe five or six year’s old – and taken her out for a well-meaning treat. But after five minutes or so, I noticed her just staring out of the window. The father was on his mobile phone for almost the entire length of the time that I was there – at least twenty minutes, if not longer.

The child would intermittently try to get her father’s attention, saying look at this or that, but he would glance across at her with a quick smile and then carry on scrolling – and scrolling, not taking any meaningful interest in what she was saying. They were in my line of sight so I could not escape the whole thing. The little girl was trying so hard to engage with her father, but his attention was elsewhere. In the end I think she just gave up. Maybe he had something very important to sort out, it is not for me to judge, but I have seen this pattern of behaviour repeated many times – especially on train journeys. It is strange how we so often criticise children and adolescents for spending too much time on their phones, when their parents can be at least as culpable. Sometimes there are also safety implications; I have seen the parents of small children using their phones whilst crossing the road, with their young charges walking ahead unsupervised.

Children may need to offload or share their experiences at the end of a long day at school, but, even more significantly, what does this behaviour by adults teach them about the nature of human interaction? The impact of mobile phones on human communication patterns must surely have been the subject of considerable research by now, but while adults feeling ignored can at least get up and walk away, very young children either have to sit in silence with a parent on their phone – or make attempts at very one-sided conversations!

I wrote the above before looking at the psychological evidence around this, but see that the term “technoference” has now been coined to describe everyday interactions being interrupted by mobile or digital devices. In a research paper published in June 2018, in the US journal Pediatric Research, the authors found that the children of parents who spend too much time on their smartphones are more likely to have behavioural problems later in life, such as becoming emotionally withdrawn, which is not altogether surprising. A Department for Education report published this year also revealed that more children are starting primary school with poor verbal communication skills; could this, partly, be because parents are not engaging in conversation with their children as much as they used to? Are mobile phones partly responsible?

If so, the question then becomes, what should the policy response be? It was reported in July 2018 that the NHS in Manchester is going to launch a campaign against the negative impact of digital addiction on communication between parents and children, the first scheme of its kind in the UK. Maybe such action needs to be more widely replicated to safeguard children’s mental health and wellbeing?

* Until recently, Judy Abel was Head of Health Policy at Policy Connect.

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25 Comments

  • Hm, you say “it is not for me to judge” but this whole post sounds pretty judgmental! And it’s not very liberal, trying to micromanage other people’s behavior like this.

    I think as so often mobile phones are blamed for existing phenomena in society, things that long pre-date them. My dad read the newspaper rather than talk to us at the dinner table and my parents always have the TV on rather than have conversations. Yes sometimes small children are going to be bored, this is not new or particularly the fault of mobile phones. 🙂

  • John Marriott 4th Oct '18 - 10:36am

    I have a mobile phone. It’s a bog standard model, which I occasionally use to speak to people and occasionally to text. It spends most of its time in my pocket when I go out and works ‘hands free’ in my car. And that’s all. Suits me fine, costs me around £8 per month. I’ve had one since the mid 1990s, my first being courtesy of the Council I was on at the time.

    Quite frankly, seeing people walking along clasping their phones or sitting in restaurants and coffee bars staring at their phones and ignoring their companions just about sums up the mesmeric effect modern devices have over many of us. Conversation? What’s that? I would certainly ban them in all schools and come down like a ton of bricks on anyone using them while driving. I’m still not convinced that excessive use will not eventually be detrimental to health – after all, we use micro waves to cook things, don’t we? Ah, well, back to Jurassic Park for me, then?

  • Angela Davies 4th Oct '18 - 10:37am

    I find people wabbling around on the pavements with their faces in their phones. I use a mobility scooter and its not fun trying to avoid an accident, They walk straight into you and you have to swerve all the time to avoid them. The mobile phone has taken over the world

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Oct '18 - 11:03am

    Holly is right up to a point – children were being ignored by their parents in public places long before we had mobile phones – be they smartphones or just phones.

    But I do feel parents ignoring their children when said children clearly need to interact with their parents is very bad – I think it results all too often in poor (attention-seeking) behaviour on the part of the children in such situations.

    And John and Angela are right in their comments regarding behaviour of mobile phone users in ignoring the needs and safety of others around them

  • “I do feel parents ignoring their children when said children clearly need to interact with their parents is very bad – I think it results all too often in poor (attention-seeking) behaviour on the part of the children in such situations.”

    This is very true, but that is the fault of the parent, not the mobile phone.

    I have been in situations like the one described in the post. I smile at the child and wave and maybe pull faces, rather than just sitting there letting the child feel like nobody will interact with them.

  • @Holly – I do get what you are saying, but I wrote this partly to rebalance the current rhetoric around children and young people being on their phones too much – adults and parents have issues around this too. if one accepts the views of mental health experts that there are problems around excessive use of phones then I suppose this is important.
    @John If adults are out for a meal etc I suppose it is up to them if they are on their phones and not interacting – however irritating it may be! – but children are more helpless in these situations. As a speech and language therapist said in one of the articles I quoted: “”You go around Manchester and Salford and see unbelievable attempts by children to communicate with the adult they are with but who is oblivious to them because they have headphones on. I find it very distressing,” said Michelle Morris, one of Britain’s leading speech and language therapists and a consultant at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust.”

    Of course like everything it’s a question of balance, but in some situations the quality of communications between parents and their children is definitely suffering. This will surely have knock on effects.

  • @Jennie – I do the same!

  • Um… I am always dubious of articles on how terrible modern media and modern technology is and how it is impacting terribly on children and young people.

    When I was growing up video nasties were all going to turn us all into violent pyscopaths. Before that it was watching Tom and Jerry cartoons.

    I am also even more dubious of psychology studies. They have a very poor history of replicability. And there is a massive problem with media reporting. They normally massively misreport what was actually found. And secondly they cherry-pick with those showing some terrible effect being much more likely to be reported. And one study does not make a result – you need meta-studies analysing the overall state of research.

    It is right to think about these things and raise concerns whether justified or not. And I appreciate the point made above that it is easy to blame children and young people for things like too much phone use that adults and older people are just as “guilty” of.

    But one needs also to look at the overall picture of technology and indeed generational cohorts. Disappointingly (!) today’s teenagers and young people are so much better than my and previous generations.

    Less drinking. Less teenage pregnancy. More intelligent. Better exam grades. More going to university. etc. etc.

    And I think today’s parents are better. I see some massively good examples of parenting when out and about. And men are much more involved in the parenting of their children etc. etc.

    But of course all this doesn’t make an article for LDV – so it is easy to get a very biased view of society.

  • @Michael 1 – fair point but I didn’t say modern media is terrible. Far from it, it has so many positive uses. I was just saying that there is evidence that parents on mobile phones (particularly those with phone addiction) are not communicating properly with their children, meaning the children are experiencing emotional problems – as the research article stated. If we keep trying to communicate with people who persistently ignore us, then the response is to stop trying. That is not good for children – or anyone for that matter.

  • @Judy Abel

    Most of your article seems to be based on articles similar to the one on the Daily Telegraph at https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-daily-telegraph/20180706/281492162070946. The original research referred to is at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41390-018-0052-6 .

    The headline on the Telegraph article is headlined “Phone addicted parents raise naughty children”. This is not the case. The researchers refer to “technoference” and not addiction. They are NOT raising naughty children. And reported behaviours are those such as increased whining, sulking etc. Now guess what I whined and sulked and threw tantrums at my parents when they were not paying me enough attention and they were involved in doing something else. Indeed one of the things one has to teach children is that they don’t get everything on demand instantly – including attention – one has to wait sometimes until an adult has finished a task. And then of course when you are a teenager, parents want to know too much about what you are doing!

    The study does what it says on the tin but it is IMHO the study and especially the reporting of it is very, very, very, very, very …. (!) poor.

    There are no controls to say whether those not using technology have better or worse “behaved” children etc.

    Just 5% of mothers and 10% of fathers reported no techoference – that’s about 10 and 20 – a very small comparison.

    We don’t know what forms of interference that the technology is replacing – for example sending a quick text to someone might stop a long phone call and enable more attention etc. Technology may well be and probably is enabling parents to spend more time with children. It may well be providing support through things like mumsnet.

    It is ironic that what the Manchester NHS doing is sending texts!

    The stereotypical model of a man in those halcyon pre-technology days of the 60s and 70s was that when he got home from work he would pour himself a drink, read the newspaper and completely ignore the children.

    This really is an example of a study and reporting of it that puts 2 and 2 together and makes 3 million!

  • @Michael The Telegraph headline of 5 July 2018 was actually ‘Parents’ excessive use of mobile phones is driving behavioural problems among children, study finds’ – not what you quoted.

    The Independent reported the story slightly differently the next day on 6 July 2018: “Parents should put down phones and speak to children to boost vocabulary, author Philip Pullman has urged.”….He said in the article “It fills me with despair when I see somebody pushing a pushchair along with a child in it and the parents walking along behind them talking into a mobile phone.”

    A month earlier on 6 June 2018 the Independent reported ‘Parents’ smartphone obsession putting children at risk, warns senior paediatrician’. The paper reported ‘People are running the risk of being involved in a “nasty accident” if they refuse to curb their smartphone addiction, said Dr Rahul Chodarhi, after new research found almost a quarter of parents have been engrossed in their devices when their children have had an accident or a near miss.’

    I suppose you think this is all wrong and insignificant. Actually I believe it isn’t.

  • What has happened to the public disquiet about radiation from mobile phones? I remember when people frequently approached me as a councillor asking why I was not stopping the erection of masts near their house, the local school and so on. I do not seem to hear about that now. And yet there is almost universal coverage by WiFi in my area. A-part from WiFi in pubs and cafes it seems that there are devices broadcasting in most people’s houses. I can tell when a bus is coming because I am invited to log on well before the bus arrives. What is happening to our brains? Especially to those of young children.
    As far as the communication with children is concerned the answer is easy. Remove the poverty and stress that so many families are experiencing. Ensure that child development is taught in schools, and remove most of the present national curriculum. In fact reinvent schools – oh make sure we measure the radiation from all those computers and other devices.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 5th Oct '18 - 9:55am

    When we went out for my birthday dinner earlier this year, it dawned on me that people might be pretty judgemental about us, a family all on their phones.

    What they couldn’t know is that we were actually talking to each other. The restaurant we went to was much noisier than usual and my son, who has Autism, found it very difficult to cope with conversation in that environment. I appreciate the modern technology that allows us to get through that situation and communicate with each other.

    So, I wouldn’t be too judgemental about use of technology. Children being ignored is an issue, but, as Holly points out, far from a new one. I grew up well before mobile phones and the internet and in an environment where children were supposed to be seen and not heard.

  • Peter Martin 5th Oct '18 - 10:20am

    My wife does this with me when we’re out.

    I can’t understand it. Surely she’d rather listen to me explaining macro-economic theory than fiddling with her Facebook account 🙂

  • Christopher Haigh 5th Oct '18 - 2:55pm

    @TomHarvey, you make a poignant remark about medical effects of mobile phone masts. I remember must be over 10 years ago sitting on the PCC of our local parish church we were approached to have mobile phone mast sited within our steeple. The income would ha I’mve gone a long way towards meeting our parish share contribution to the Diocese on an ongoing basis. However.as we were located next to a school and residential area considering the media frenzy about supposed dangers we obviously turned the proposal down. In retrospect would the mast have caused any harm ?

  • Peter Martin 5th Oct '18 - 5:09pm

    @ Christopher Haigh @ Tom Harney

    Probably the decision on the church steeple was the wrong one. It depends how you view the world. But if you want to make ‘evidence based policy’ as I’ve seen LibDems claim to be in favour of, then you’d have to agree that there is little risk with mobile phone radiation.

    https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/cell-phones-fact-sheet

  • Nigel Jones 5th Oct '18 - 9:12pm

    Mobile phones do bring a different dimension to the arguments about giving children your attention. People keep them on and often keep looking at them because messages and information are there constantly. That is different from the time when a parent would be with their child for a while and be interrupted usually only when and if, the phone rang after arriving at home.
    I think Judy makes a valid point and what follows is that parents need to set aside some moments when the phone is switched off, just as we are expected to switch them off when sitting in a concert hall.

  • @Nigel – thanks for your comments – much appreciated!

  • Judy is right that you can’t judge based on a single event, and it might be that this was an exception, and the father had something urgent to organise, but the trend is something to be aware of. I remember when it was considered to be rude to read the newspaper at the dinner table, and you were supposed to switched the tv off if you had visitors, but inevitably both of those things still happened.

    IMO, the real danger of smart phones and social media is that it’s very easy to lose track of how much time you’ve spent on there, and while it might be reasonable for parents to deal with a few work emails, or messages to fellow parents to organise transport arrangements to a birthday party whilst spending time with their kids, the danger is that it’s very, very easy to start off doing “essential” or even “useful” stuff on your phone but quickly move towards doing the frivolous stuff that absorbs your attention and realise that you’ve lost the previous half hour of your life to stuff that doesn’t matter and you won’t even remember the next day. That’s fine in your own time, but if you are supposed to be interacting with a child, it’s not fair.

    That said, the idea that being on a mobile phone is always frivolous is problematic. I often use the mapping functions to help me find my destination, which can mean using it on a pavement. I’m sure many assume that I’m one of those people who can’t walk down the street without texting, rather than someone who is a bit lost. Sometimes when out with family/friends, you do want to check on something, or put a date in the diary, or look at a photo. But on the whole, and because I know how prone I am to checking twitter, I try to keep my phone in a pocket or bag when I’m meeting a friend for lunch to help me resist temptation.

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Oct '18 - 10:08am

    @Fiona
    “…while it might be reasonable for parents to deal with a few work emails, or messages to fellow parents to organise transport arrangements to a birthday party whilst spending time with their kids, the danger is that it’s very, very easy to start off doing “essential” or even “useful” stuff on your phone but quickly move towards doing the frivolous stuff …”

    Apart from people who are actually ‘on call’ (and being paid for doing so) for involvement in such matters as emergency services, IT systems etc. work emails while not at work should be a no-no. Expecting an employee to deal with routine work emails while not at work is a gross imposition on their personal time and should be discouraged in my view.

    “I often use the mapping functions to help me find my destination, which can mean using it on a pavement.”

    Why would you need to do this on any continuous basis? Surely you just find the next landmark, put the phone away and walk to that landmark…? Which gives you an opportunity to look at what you are walking past instead of at your phone..

  • Thank you for all your comments on this post. Hope to write something on plastics recycling soon

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