It started when I was breastfeeding my first baby. I spent hours nursing in the static quiet of his little bedroom, and staring at the grinning octopi and seahorses (#nauticalnursery) on his walls certainly didn’t engage my intellectual capabilities. Though I’d long been a devotee of text messaging, my missives to friends and family took on a more insistent — and rapid-fire — tone. And when it was four in the morning and I needed to stay awake on the rocking chair, my text notifications weren’t exactly hopping. So I took to scrolling social media to keep my eyes open.
Before I knew it, I was one of those people. You know the ones: phone in hand, perpetually distracted, the glow of their smartphone reflecting off their eyeballs like a doomed sci-fi character. As my newborn became an infant and then a toddler, his physical needs for me grew. At the same time, my desire to feel like I was connecting to the world that was still happening without me grew from a whisper to a roar. It didn’t matter that I was going for days on end without muttering a compound sentence. I was still getting parenting advice, relationship tips, the latest news, and a heaping helping of whatever Kim Kardashian was wearing. It was all in the palm of my hand.
What’s more, I was cultivating my career. Since I’d chosen to give up my office job to be my child’s primary caretaker, I had felt at first like my career was stalled for the foreseeable future. But with the bevy of self-promotional opportunities available online (and our ever-diminishing family checking account, natch), I reevaluated that assumption. Like many mothers, I felt myself having a creative renaissance that was born out of — well, giving birth. This flush of fresh inspiration translated into writing gigs and freelance editing opportunities. The more I was checking my email, building relationships on Twitter, and evaluating trends for story ideas, the more the opportunities seemed to multiply. By my kid’s third birthday, I didn’t feel like I fit the definition of a stay-at-home mother at all. I was home, and I was a mother, but I felt like I was always at work.
Until my son became more verbal, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be damaging him with my smartphone habits. I was modeling how to chase dreams! I was a strong woman leaning in! Then one day I noticed how often during a typical day my child had to ask me to look up at him. My heart sank when it hit me that he could have been trying to communicate in other ways while I had been pitching stories to online venues (or, let’s be honest, lost in a Wikipedia abyss of former Nickelodeon child stars). By this time, my second child had already been born, and he was far less patient than my first. He’d taken to just slapping my phone from my grip.
That’s when I found out about the clinical studies being done about what’s being called “technoference.” Children whose parents are checking in with their phones often during childcare are more prone to behavioral outbursts, according to a study published in Child Development journal. And nearly half of parents report having digital interruptions disrupt the time they spend with their children at least three separate times per day.
Research also tells us that women are more likely to be addicted to their smartphones, and that women tend to see smartphone use as more problematic than male caretakers. Early motherhood is a time when women are especially susceptible to anxiety and depression, which has them reaching for their phones to make a connection with the outside world. Ironically, we’re now understanding that smartphones may very well be closely connected to anxiety and depression, possibly making them worse.
We spend a lot of time talking about what it means to “be present” and “in the moment,” especially as mothers fighting societal pressures and sensory overload. One thing that women tend to shy away from addressing is how hard it is to fight distractions, digital and otherwise, while we’re at home. The mundane and physically exhausting acts of motherhood can wear down even the most screen-free vigilante.
Camaron Brooks is a blogger, author, and mother of three who worked as a television reporter before choosing to stay home with her children. Although her primary occupation changed, her smartphone reliance initially didn’t. Brooks was still tracking the news and using her phone to stay connected with the world she had left behind… until she started doing research of her own into how maternal lack of engagement can influence child development.
Now she’s striving to be more intentional. “I try to ask myself what the feeling is that I’m trying to escape when I look at my phone. Some of the time, it’s boredom,” Brooks admits. “But I want to be available to my kids… their behavior is connected to my phone behavior.”
Part of the problem can be solved by reconsidering the way we see community. During my late-night text binges and midnight Twitter scrolls, I was desperate to feel like I wasn’t the only person in the world that couldn’t seem to nail sleep training. Educational resources, tried-and-true advice, and the physical presence of other mothers in my life diminished that craving when I learned how to find them. Making time to go outside and actually be with other mothers of young children provides a level of accountability that’s sometimes missing during long hours spent behind closed doors. “The way that motherhood is set up for us, there’s so much pressure to be present all the time. In the past, we didn’t have to think about ways to be present — we just were present,” Brooks observes. And we can still achieve that level of “present” by simply focusing on our IRL connections for a couple of hours.
Trying to envision how I appear through my children’s eyes when I’m on my phone all day (think: strung out on useless information and visibly ignoring their appeals for my attention) was a quick cue to delete Clash of Clans already. But avoiding the beckoning glow of my device is probably never going to be easy for me. Reading angry comments on websites (no one should do this; why did I?) and posting on forums to pass the time is just never going to beat paying attention to what my super weird, incredibly intelligent, maddeningly intuitive offspring is telling me about. Instead of asking me what I’m doing on my phone (alas, a question to which I often had absolutely no answer), my son is asking me to play with him more often. Because I’m more fun now.
Engaging in a group-text rant or a couple of midday email exchanges is still essential to my sanity, but I’ve worked hard to cut back on the apps and newsfeeds that were stealing the precious few moments I have to soak up my kids while they’re little. Don’t get me wrong, it felt like work — and I had to remind myself why I was doing it every step of the way. As with anything else, sacrificing a momentary impulse for a long-term goal, when it comes to my kids, will always be worth shutting off my WiFi for an hour or two. As I struggle to keep my eyes open while I hold one kid’s hand and rock back and forth with another child in my arms, I’m grateful that my hands are free. I think, “Remember this.” Remember this. They’re going to.
How have your smartphone habits impacted your parenting? Tell us on Twitter @BritandCo !
(Photo via Getty)