By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media parenting editor
We've all seen that dad yakking away on his cell phone at the playground while his 3-year-old resorts to increasingly desperate measures to get his attention. We've also been that parent. We answer emails, update Facebook, take a conference call, and try to get in that one last text. The thing is, kids notice -- and they're not happy about it.
Lots of studies address the impact of screen time on kids, and guidelines show how much is appropriate at what age. But researchers are just beginning to look into the effect that parents' screen use has on kids. A Boston Medical Center study of how families at a restaurant interacted with each other when they used cell phones demonstrated that caregivers who were "highly absorbed" in their devices responded harshly to their kids' bids for attention. And in her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair found that kids often feel they have to compete with devices for their parents' attention.
Most importantly, kids learn their screen habits from us. It might be easier if someone just gave parents a recommended daily time limit so we'd know when to stop. In the meantime, we'll need to find balance. But there's a huge motivator to change our behavior: The little girl on the play structure, the boy learning to skateboard, the twins playing dress-up. They're watching us, watching our phones.
5 Ways to Find a Healthy Balance of Media and Technology
Be a role model. When kids are around, set an example by using media the way you want them to use it. Keep mobile devices away from the dinner table, turn the TV off when it's not being watched, and use a DVR to record shows to watch later.
Start good habits early. The secret to healthy media use is to establish time limits and stick to them. Start when your kids are young by setting screen limits that work for your family's needs and schedule. And don't just talk the talk -- walk the walk!
Use media together. Whenever you can, watch, play, and listen with your kids. Ask them what they think of the content. Share your values, and help kids relate what they learn in the media to events and other activities in which they're involved. With older kids, you can draw them out by sharing stuff from your Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Keep distractions to a minimum. You probably tell your kids to turn their phones off during homework time. Get rid of the stuff that distracts you, too. Hide your apps so they don't display, set your phone to "do not disturb," or shut down your devices during important family time.
Turn off work. Many parents feel they need to be constantly accessible to their jobs. But that's stressful, frustrating, and not realistic. Set boundaries for work time and family time.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.