Whose Screen Time is the Real Problem?

At our family reunion last week, I overheard one of my sisters saying she gives her kids half-an-hour a day of screen time. My stomach churned, wondering if I’d been too indulgent when I agreed that an hour-a-day on the Wii was the limit for summer. Was I harming our kids? It’s a common topic at the swimming pool and soccer field: How much screen time is good for kids? It’s an important question for parents to ask and answer. But a recent article from The Atlantic exposes an even more urgent, and less asked, question:

Smartphones have by now been implicated in so many crummy outcomes—car fatalities, sleep disturbances, empathy loss, relationship problems, failure to notice a clown on a unicycle—that it almost seems easier to list the things they don’t mess up than the things they do. Our society may be reaching peak criticism of digital devices.

Even so, emerging research suggests that a key problem remains underappreciated. It involves kids’ development, but it’s probably not what you think. More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents. …

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned. …

Yet for all the talk about children’s screen time, surprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents themselves, who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory. …

Occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience), but chronic distraction is another story. Smartphone use has been associated with a familiar sign of addiction: Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them. A tuned-out parent may be quicker to anger than an engaged one, assuming that a child is trying to be manipulative when, in reality, she just wants attention. Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her non-engagement that the child is less valuable than an email.

Secular psychologists are raising the alarm that parents’ distraction is dangerous to their children. How much more should Christian parents be concerned to audit their own tech habits? It’s not enough to limit your kids’ screen time when you’re distracted by beeps and chimes all day long; to take the kilobyte out of your child’s eye when a terabyte of data is clogging your own. Your children may hear you saying too much time on a phone or iPad or computer isn’t good for them. But what are they learning from what you’re doing?

I’ve noticed my own impulse to look at my phone the moment it beeps, even if I’m in the middle of a conversation with one of our kids. Few things approach such rudeness; such disregard for neighbor. But even worse is to consider what my sinful habits are teaching them. I’m chastened by the command to fathers in Ephesians 6 to “not provoke your children to anger.” Some translations say “do not exasperate.” I know the exasperation I feel when someone cuts me off mid-sentence to engage their virtual world. I hate feeling like their online “friends” are more real, and more interesting, than I am. How much more must children feel that when their parents ignore them for something on a hand-held screen?

How many times are you pulled away from kitchen table conversation or drive time chatter to check Facebook posts, text messages, Instagram hearts, or Twitter updates? How can obey the charge to teach our children the commands of God as we sit in our homes, walk by the way, lie down, and rise, (Deuteronomy 6:7) if we’re never without our phones? We need more than a Coke-branded dog relief collar to help us see what we’re missing, and how we’re affecting our children.

Today, while reading aloud to our two younger sons, I found myself needing to ignore my phone when it chimed multiple times. While waiting at the doctor’s office, I resisted the temptation to look at email to pass the time, choosing instead to read another chapter in the book we had started earlier. Later, when I called them in to show them the Coke video, I noticed how distracting the push notifications were. I wanted to look at the emails, the texts, and more. But I wanted to show them that they are more important than what’s on my phone. The alerts on my phone can wait.

No matter what we tell our children, our smart phone habits are teaching our children about our priorities. Parents, we need to pray and ask God to show us our sin, and show us His grace. Moms and Dads, we need to set the example we want our children to follow. Paul’s words to Timothy applies to us as parents: “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12b). This digital generation needs you to help them steward their screen time and that begins with setting before them an example that shows that you need screen time limits and stewardship as much as they do.


Think you may be on your phone too much? Take this helpful quiz from Tim Challies: Are You Addicted to Your Smart Phone? For an in-depth look at how smartphones are reshaping us, see Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You.

Written by Candice Watters

Candice Watters

Candice Watters is a wife, mom, Bible teacher, and managing editor of the Truth78 blog. She is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen and co-author with her husband Steve of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children.

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