Sherry Turkle worries about it in Alone Together, and journalists love to worry about it: the idea that parents are increasingly ignoring their kids to stare at their phones. Perhaps there are cases where children are genuinely suffering neglect from phone-obsessed parents, but I would wager that that is an extremely rare occurrence, and that the problems in such a family extend far beyond a phone. For most of us, I’m sure that peeking at your phone now and then does not endanger your children. Here’s why:

  1. It’s OK to spend a few minutes reading the news, talking to a friend or sharing a silly photo. Assuming you’re not staring at your phone the entire day, taking breaks from direct interaction with your kids will give you more energy to actually be with your family.
  2. Parents have always read the newspaper at the breakfast table. This is not typically seen as evidence of terrible parenting. Why should reading news on your phone be such a problem?
  3. Children need alone time too. It’s vital for kids to learn to play alone and with friends and siblings. Parents have never in the history of humanity spent as much one-on-one time with their children as today, and while of course parental attention is important, no child should be taught that they can always command their parents’ complete and undivided attention.
  4. Keeping in touch with your friends and family through your phone gives you – and your children – a stronger social network. That makes you more able to provide your kids with a good environment, healthy friendships and not least, a happy parent.
  5. Let’s face it: there are aspects of parenting that are really boring. A phone is lightweight enough to read easily while you’re breastfeeding or waiting for the kids to fall asleep or sitting at the playground while they get on with their business of playing with other kids. I actually loved breastfeeding, but didn’t feel the need to be 100% mindful of if for 2 1/2 hours a day.
  6. The rhetoric of addiction is a classic trope of media panic; that is, the tendency for a society to decry the evils of any new medium. Does this excerpt from 1796 sound familiar? Except, hey, it’s novels they’re worried about, not phones. Fancy that!

    I have actually seen mothers, in miserable garrets, crying for the imaginary distress of an heroine, while their children were crying for bread: and the mistress of a family losing hours over a novel in the parlour, while her maids, in emulation of the example, were similarly employed in the kitchen. (Sylph no. 5, October 7, 1796: 36-37 (qtd in Inventing Maternity)

    Fear of the new is often expressed as a fear that the family itself is threatened, and mothers and children are regularly invoked. Genevieve Bell commented that “moral panic is remarkably stable and it is always played out in the bodies of children and women.”

  7. Statistically speaking, you’re already spending far more time with your kids than your parents’ or grandparents generation did. So relax, take a deep breath, and don’t feel guilty if you check Facebook while you’re cooking dinner and the kids play with their lego.

ADDENDUM, Oct 1: I hadn’t really considered injuries to children due to parents distracted by mobile phones, as described in this Wall Street Journal article. Obviously if your very young child is at the pool you should be watching your child, not surfing. Having said that, I’m sure parents and caretakers have been distracted at the pool before phones arrived too.

12 thoughts on “Seven reasons why it’s fine for parents to love their mobile phones

  1. Eirik Newth

    Interesting point of view, but I do see a problem with the data you quote. The datapoints are from before the turn of the centtury, that is to say well before the Social Media/Smart Phone explosion which the Aftenposten story you link to specifically covers.

    The interesting point raised in the story is not the raw number of hours we spend with our kids, but rather the quality of the time spent. I would like to see you refute some of our leading child psychologists with something more relevant to our time, in other words. 🙂

  2. Jill

    Well, as you know, Eirik, I’m not a child psychologist – I do know something about media panics though. I suppose it would be interesting to see whether the amount of time spent with our children has decreased after mobile phones became ubiquitous.

    Oh look, Proctor and Gamble (hardly non-objective, but maybe valid?) say that “Between 2000 and 2005 the time spent on child care by mothers rose by 14%. For fathers, however, it rose by 36%.” So that suggests we’re continuing to spend more time on our kids.

    And then there are popular (critical) ideas of helicopter parents and curling parents.

  3. Eirik Newth

    @Jill: Firstly, you are still quoting oldish data in this context. Secondly, as you of course know, the fact that media panics exist does not in itself negate the arguments put forward by psychologists.

    I’m not at all sure that Magne Raundalen is right (I’ve disagreed with him often enough before), but so far your refutation misses the mark for me.

    Can’t you find any data that adresses the issues actually raised in the Aftenposten story, such as the astonishing claim that parents use of smartphones “steal IQ points from the child”?

  4. Torgeir Waterhouse

    kick ass!

    I know we’re gonna talk about this sometime this week…

  5. Åsta

    I think the difficult aspect of smartphones is the constant availability paired with the unpredictableness of when and how long they will snatch and occupy someones attention.

    And I think this is not only relevant in my capacity as parent, but as friend, sister, daughter.

    Not that I’m hysterical about smartphones, but I do see some ways in wich they definetly can drasticaly decrease the quality of their owners company.

  6. Eirik Newth

    @Åsta: I have the same experience, which is why I found this blog post so unsatisfying. It’s our kids we are talking about, after all. “This is just a media panic so don’t worry” is simply not good enough.

  7. Jill

    Eirik, I’m not advocating total immersion in your phone the whole time you’re around your kids – I just think that the level of panic and guilt is a bit excessive for what we’re talking about.

  8. Rachel

    Jill- Love this. How many hours did women spend on the phone in their kitchen? According to Kyle- a lot! (Sorry Barb!!) you raise great points- that we are more engaged than ever before with our children, that taking a break for 10 minutes is not going to hurt anyone and if anything does allow us to then refocus and pay greater attention, and staying connected to the wider world, our friends, and out family is a great model for children.
    I’m no social scientist but I love your quote. I think all kinds of generations have had panics!!

  9. Jill

    Rachel, thanks! And you’re right about mothers talking on the phone a lot before mobile phones – that’s hardly new!

  10. L. Cecilie Wian

    Jeg husker klart hvordan min mor aviste mine henvendelser med at “nå snakker mamma med sine gjester”, “voksentid” het det. Nå gjør jeg det samme som Jill, utvider definisjonen av ‘normalt’ fremfor å sammenligne barns IQ fra før og etter smartelefonenes inntog.

    Et underliggende krav i teksten i aftenposten er at vi får, eller burde kun får barn om vi vil snakke med de og dyrke de til deres ytterste potensiale.

    Smartelefonen er ikke den eneste som blir heftig diskutert for tiden. Barnehager også. Det er en populær tanke at det eneste som kan utvikle barnet er foreldrene.

    Og her blir Raundalen både historieløs og urettferdig.

    Det ingen fasit eller tak som foreldre kan oppnå. De er bare alltid for dårlige, og argumentet er alltid neglekt av barna. Foreldre overser alltid barna sine for mye og forstår aldri barnas potensiale godt nok.

    I tilegg gjør forfatteren noen antagelser, slik som at barnet ikke får spurt sine 400 spørsmål om dagen, og at kvaliteten på svarene måles i antall ord.

    Det gjelder tydligvis i samtale med våre medmennesker også. For om vi sjekker wikipedia for å få avklart ting istedenfor å diskutere oss frem til en enighet om hva svaret kan være, så går vi glipp av samtalen.

    Denne greske ideen om hvordan man skal finne ut av hva som er sannheten er tullete brukt på det som nå er for pugge-kunnskap å regne.

    Det som ikke står på wikipedia er kanskje de folk på fest nå bruker tiden sin på. Hvordan oppnår man fred, hva er rettferdig, burde sinnsyke dømmes for sine handlinger?

  11. Jill

    Savner en stor LIKE knapp, Cecilie! Takk!!

  12. […] my way through the article – although I don´t have any kids on my own. But then I read jill/txt´s very interesting piece on the topic, and I thought, yes, she is right, it is a very useful way of passing time while you´re not really […]

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Triple book talk: Watch James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me discuss our 2023 books

Thanks to everyone who came to the triple book talk of three recent books on machine vision by James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me, and thanks for excellent questions. Several people have emailed to asked if we recorded it, and yes we did! Here you go! James and Jussi’s books […]

Image on a black background of a human hand holding a graphic showing the word AI with a blue circuit board pattern inside surrounded by blurred blue and yellow dots and a concentric circular blue design.
AI and algorithmic culture Machine Vision

Four visual registers for imaginaries of machine vision

I’m thrilled to announce another publication from our European Research Council (ERC)-funded research project on Machine Vision: Gabriele de Setaand Anya Shchetvina‘s paper analysing how Chinese AI companies visually present machine vision technologies. They find that the Chinese machine vision imaginary is global, blue and competitive.  De Seta, Gabriele, and Anya Shchetvina. “Imagining Machine […]

Do people flock to talks about ChatGPT because they are scared?

Whenever I give talks about ChatGPT and LLMs, whether to ninth graders, businesses or journalists, I meet people who are hungry for information, who really want to understand this new technology. I’ve interpreted this as interest and a need to understand – but yesterday, Eirik Solheim said that every time […]