Put Your Phone Down

Parents Who Use Their Phones To Relax Are (Usually) Worse Parents

Using your phone or computer to unwind when the kids are around is linked to worse parenting outcomes, a recent study finds.

Originally Published: 
A man on his phone and laptop, ignoring his two children.
MoMo Productions/Getty

We spend a lot of time worrying about how much screen time our kids are getting. Experts and parents alike fear that spending time in front of screens is making children anti-social, depressed, anxious, and the list goes on. But a recent study has turned the tables, finding that parents need to be equally mindful of using their own screens around their kids — not just because it sets a bad example, but because it objectively makes them worse parents.

In the study, based on questionnaires given to 549 parents with at least two children aged 5 to 18, researchers found that using screen time as a means of relaxation is tied to poor parenting, and that parents who were experiencing more psychological stress tended to use screens more often, especially to unwind. Poor parenting included behavior such as only sometimes enforcing rules depending on your mood, yelling at your child, nagging them about little things, and saying mean things to make your child feel bad.

“When kids are showing difficult behaviors, parents might use technology to withdraw. And when you’re more absorbed in media, you might have stronger, less patient reactions to your children,” says Jasmine Zhang, lead study author and a graduate student researcher in the Whole Family Lab at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

These parents are also more likely to “retreat” rather than engage their children when they’re behaving poorly, Zhang says. If you’re absorbed in your phone, “you’re more likely to shy away when a child is having a tantrum rather than being hands on and addressing the situation.”

That’s not to say that every sort of media consumption is connected to bad parenting. “It’s important to note that not all parental media use takes resources away from direct interaction with your children,” says Zhang. The researchers found that using media to maintain social connections — for example by texting, video chatting, and emailing friends — was actually linked to good parenting, such as cheering up your child when they’re sad, providing care and attention to your kid, and listening to their ideas and opinions. This makes sense because remaining socially connected is linked to remaining positive, present, and available to your children.

There are also plenty of times, Zhang says, when kids are asleep or are not present, when it’s fine to watch your favorite TV show or take a few minutes to scroll through your Instagram feed. The problem comes when you have trouble relaxing without your phone, so you end up zoning out on social media when your child needs you.

If you find yourself using your phone to relax on a regular basis, try out some other methods for unwinding, such as listening to music or reading a book.

Don’t beat yourself up if you relax with screens in front of your kids every once in a while. We’re all guilty of it. But if you find yourself zoning out to a screen when your kids need you the most, it might be worth finding new ways to unwind — at least until the kids head to bed.

Three Simple Tricks For Parents To Get Healthier Screen Time Habits

1. Get a 5PM phone bucket. After five o’clock, or when you get back from work, all devices get dropped in the bucket until the kids are asleep.

2. Use parental controls — for yourself. There are ample screen controls that mirror what you might use for a child. In Apple, for example, look to the Screen Time in Settings to limit your daily intake of certain time-sucking apps.

3. Set up a game night. Want to lead by example? Set up fun nights that are necessarily screen-free.

This article was originally published on