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Smartphone danger: Distracted parenting

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
Sometimes, you need to put the phone down and have some face-to-face time with your kids.
Sometimes, you need to put the phone down and have some face-to-face time with your kids.
  • A mom finds herself addicted to her cell phone and her daughter tells her to put it away
  • Make face-to-face time a priority with your kids, as well as time for technology
  • Turn off any media when speaking with your kids so you can all pay attention

Editor's note: Katia Hetter is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.

(CNN) -- "Mama, put the phone AWAY."

That's my kid talking to me, and she's only 3.

She's scolding me, but she's scolding you, too.

So listen up.

I understand your work pays the bills and you only have time to connect to people through Tweeting your mood or reading your cousin's latest Facebook update. I really do get it. My phone is wearing holes in my favorite jeans.

As for me, I'm afraid a boss may accuse me of failing utterly in my latest project if I don't respond to her e-mail immediately. I also read the newspaper on my phone when I'm too sleepy to find my shoes to go outside and get the real thing. And I get into the Twitter discussion of the latest natural disaster, of which there are many these days.

Still, I know my addiction to my hand-held device is bad. Checking my phone while talking to my kid while cooking dinner is hurting my capacity to stay with a thought for more than 140 characters.

And Stanford University researchers back me up. They found that people who juggle different sources of electronic information do not focus or remember as well as people who work on one task at a time.

All this multitasking could also hurt my kid's ability to learn. Another Stanford study about to be published suggests it could be damaging tweens' ability to develop emotional and social skills.

2010: Addicted to our phones?
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"People who spend a lot of time online don't develop social and emotional skills they need," said Clifford Nass, a Stanford communication professor and a researcher on both studies. "We think the reason is that you have to learn how to read emotion and understand people's emotions."

My iPhone was a gift when I was eight months pregnant and couldn't move. "You'll be able to send pictures of the baby without moving," said my spouse. I burst into tears -- at the work involved in transferring data. But I started sending those pictures to every relative I could find shortly after our child was born. (And I haven't stopped. I just added video. Isn't she adorable?)

Now I hate to put the phone down. I'm an addict. I love, love, love, love my phone. Maybe more than I love you.

My phone is also my helpful denial tool that I live in the real world filled with dirty dishes, diapers, laundry and bits of red Georgia clay getting tracked into the house without my consent. More to vacuum, more to wipe down, more to load into the dishwasher.

The problem is, my kid sees me with that phone and doesn't think about all that real world stuff. She doesn't give me a pass. In that moment, she might believe my phone is more important than she is.

That makes me sad, probably because she's right, in that moment. And now I know if I fail to focus on her, she might not learn how to read emotions and interact with others. But she won't be right about it any more, if I change. And that I have started to do.

Our first activity since my child called me on the carpet would destroy my phone if I tried to bring it along. We had a huge finger-painting party at the kitchen table. We covered her hands with paint and made handprint pictures for both of her grandmas for Mother's Day.

We combined primary colors on paper to learn how they make other colors. There's nothing like seeing the light go on in a kid's brain when she sees blue and yellow make green -- her favorite color!

I've also found it's hard to push a swing "higher and higher Mama!" or have all of my frozen yogurt to myself or finish a dinosaur puzzle if I have a phone in one hand.

For my kid's emotional and social development, but also for mine, I must commit to having some phone-free space with her. And perhaps even with my spouse, whose job demands 24-hour access via her phone.

I'm not tossing out my phone or the ability to respond to an employer from the playground while my child plays with other kids. Nass said I don't have to go cold turkey. But some face-to-face time is now sacred in our house. Mama is putting down that phone.

Tips for technology-addicted parents

You spend so much time making sure your kids eat right, have all of their shots, and have their homework done for school the next day. Their social development and ability to connect with other people is just as important for their survival.

Make a conscious effort to dedicate a few minutes each day to focus on what your children are saying -- without any media distracting you or them -- and see what happens.

Face-to-face time

Spend some time with your child talking and looking at each other face to face. Talk to your child and don't do anything else. Insist your kid look at you. If face-to-face time is understood as sacred, children and adults alike will focus and learn instead of looking elsewhere.

Turn off media

Turn off televisions, phones, computers, games or other electronic devices that can distract when you're speaking with your children. Remember when it was considered rude to leave the television on when speaking to other people? Now consider that it could also be a social and emotional health hazard.

Balance media use

It's OK for your children to interact online if they also have technology-free face-to-face time with their friends. "Heavy media users who also have rich and active face-to-face communication where they're not multitasking will develop emotionally," Nass said.

Have dinner as a family

This is old advice, but bears repeating: All technology should be off the table -- literally. If you're sitting around the table texting while eating, you are not connecting. Teach your child to connect by connecting.

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