Is Parental Phone Use Related to Increased Negative Behaviors In Children?

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

At dinner the other night…

 I had the most interesting experience/revelation. As I looked around the restaurant, I realized 80% of people were on their phones/tablets versus interacting with the people with whom they were having dinner. I immediately realized this was not something new and that I had not suddenly discovered a new social phenomenon. However, seeing this scene did make think about my own clients. I work primarily with kids and youth. One common complaint or issue my kids have is lack of parental attention.

 “My mom/dad/caregiver is always on their phone” is a complaint I hear more often that I would like to admit. Working with kids, involving parents in treatment is pivotal; in contrast to my previous statement, parents often have issues with the amount of time their kids spend on their phones/tablets. This is a very “which is first the chicken or the egg” type of conundrum. Do kids learn their relationship with technology from parents or have parents learned it from kids. It is my opinion that technology use in both parents and kids might be symbiotic. Children introduce parents to technology and then parents’ model appropriate technology use.

What does the research tell us?

While technology is a wonderful resource and it allows people to have access to a bountiful of information, it also has its downfalls. Most recently, many organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and Common-Sense Media, warn parents about the impact their own use of technology might have on kids.

In a research study done by Boston University looking at the effects of screen time on parental attention; researchers found that out of 55 caregivers involved in the study, 40 of the adults were completely entranced with their phones to the point of completely ignoring their child [1]. In another research looking at injuries in children under 6 found that there was a correlation between increased screen time and ER visits [2]. That is to say, children were more likely to be injured when parents were distracted on their phones.

Photo by Angelo Moleele on Unsplash

While the physical impact of parental distraction is obvious; little attention has been placed on its impact on mental health. Kids learn many of their socio-emotional skills from parents; how to have a conversation, empathy, coping skills, appropriate behaviors, etc. While research has demonstrated parents are spending more time with their kids, physically, it has also found that parents are less emotionally available. 

How does technology use relate to negative behaviors? 

Children need attention much like plants need water. Developmentally, children seek attention in order to fulfill their need for love, acceptance, security, and interaction with their parents/caregivers. When children don’t receive attention for normal positive behaviors, they will seek it through negative and maladaptive ones. When speaking with parents I always ask them how they respond to their kids when they have done something bad and something good. More often than not, as kids grow up parental reactions to positive behaviors decrease; the expectation is created that kids “should” know what they need to do and we don’t tend to create a fuzz over the little things. For example, if a kid manages to fold their clothes, finish their homework, create an art project, over time parents don’t celebrate these events as much as they did when their kids were younger. On the other hand, when a child engages in negative behaviors such as breaking an item in the home, drawing on the walls, eating a treat before dinner, parent’s negative reaction is much more reinforcing because of the amount of stimulation and attention the child receives. When scolding a child parents tend to raise their voice, make large body movements/gesticulations, and spend quite a while explaining why what the child has just done is wrong.

 When parents are distracted on their phones it is very likely that they will not be giving their kids a lot of attention. This is where negative behaviors come into play. Because kids need attention, they will seek it from parents in whichever way possible; thus, over time they will learn that when they misbehave, they will get much more attention than when they do something right. 

Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

What can we do? 

When working with families, I always emphasize that is never too late to change course. In terms of screen time and technology use, I always recommend that parents begin by modeling appropriate behaviors. Setting boundaries and rules around when and where the use of technology is appropriate are very important. Parents sometimes fear that changing rules can have negative consequences. While some pushback from kids is normal, eventually they will learn the new boundaries and will adjust to them.  

 For parents with older kids, safety is always a concern. Strangers and inappropriate information are only a click away. Supervising phone/technology use and being aware of the content kids are exposed too is very important. Many companies such as Apple have invested in creating apps that allow parents to monitor screen time as well as content. Below are 2 links that educate parents on different apps they can use to keep their kids safe and monitor their phone use.

When should technology be off limits? 

  • Meals and family time- these are times where technology and phones should be put away and/or turned off. Parents can learn a lot about their kids and what is going in their lives during meal times. When kids are eating and feel happy, they are more likely to communicate. As kids grow up, parents want to ensure that communication channels are open and that their kids feel safe talking to them. Positive parent-child communication has been linked to reduced involvement in risky behaviors, drug use, alcohol consumption, and sexual activity during adolescence.
  •  Bedtime- the process that helps us fall asleep rely on physical cues such as light, sound, and temperature. When kids (and for that matter adults) use technology right before bed, the light from the screen sends a message to the brain that it is not the time for sleeping yet. Melatonin production can be delayed due to exposure to light. Moreover, kids might struggle to fall asleep after using technology due to overstimulation.
  • Any other time you deem appropriate- every family has different boundaries and priorities. As parents/caregivers, you can determine when technology should be off limits based on how your family operates. Do what whatever works for your family.




Alejandra is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor (AMF #105469, APC# 4917). She graduated from Brandman University with a Masters in Psychology; she also holds a Bachelors in Psychology and Criminal Justice from California State University, San Bernardino.

Currently, she works for a non-profit organization that provides mental health services to schools in southern California. In addition, she also works for a private practice where she specializes in working with children, youth, and families suffering from a variety of issues such as academic performance, learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and grief.


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