Parents don’t need more guilt. That’s not what this article is about.

We know we shouldn’t spend too much time on our smartphones in front of our kids. We’ve read articles like “For The Children’s Sake, Put Down That Smartphone,” and “Children reveal ‘hidden sadness’ of parents spending too much time on mobile phones.”

But you probably already feel a tinge of guilt when you think of this topic. I know I do.

We parents are beginning to admit that we’re as concerned about our screen time as we’re concerned about our kids’ screen time.

Unlike our kids, however, we actually have reasons for looking at screens all day.

We have email, schedules, research, updates, shopping, messaging, mapping, planning – sometimes even calling.

Let’s admit it – again, without guilt or judgment – we also look at our screens for entertainment and distraction. Those are parental needs too.

Our phone dependence is a symptom of busy lives, busy work, restless minds. But the devices themselves are rigged against us. Intentionally or not, their design can trigger addiction-like behaviors in many people. As noted on Quartz,

“Still, there’s plenty of research out there describing the dopamine effect—a neurotransmitter that sends pulses to your brain’s reward and pleasure centers with every new text or tweet—and the widespread addiction to that momentary pleasure, which has been compared to cravings for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling.”

Indeed, according to this recent Gallup poll, “about half of U.S. smartphone owners check their devices several times an hour or more frequently.”

The attention we devote to our phones has a measurable impact on our health, wellbeing, and social and family relationships.

Psychology professor Larry Rosen has shown that “if there’s a phone around—even if it’s someone else’s phone—its presence tends to make people anxious and perform more poorly on tasks.”

Staring at our phones gives us tech neck, it can spike stress, it can disrupt sleep patterns, it can lead to distractedness and irritability, and it may even trigger depressive symptoms in some people.

The intense attention we devote to our smartphones has a major, measurable impact on our health, wellbeing, and social and family relationships.

But in a family situation, the greatest problem might be “technoference” with our relationships with our spouse and kids.

Kids can feel that we’re more interested in our phones than we are interested in them.

The good news is that this is a fixable problem. For most people, it’s simply a matter of admitting to the issue, and making a simple plan with the rest of the family.

Help Your Kids Develop Healthy Habits by Improving Your Tech Habits

David Hill of the American Academy of Pediatrics said that positive parenting practices around technology include role-modeling.

“Demonstrate your own mindfulness in front of your children by putting down your phone during meals or whenever they need your attention.” – David Hill

Here are some ideas to help you create healthy phone boundaries. Boundaries that your kid might inherit and follow outside of your home, and may even pass down to their own kids someday.

An ad reminding parents to put the phone down during family time from Ogilvy & Mather China

 1 ) Take Stock of Your Actual Phone Needs 

Tim Harford writes that “smartphones are habit-forming, so think about the habits you want to form.”

Every parent has unique technology-related needs. Many of us legitimately need to get on our phones. But most of us get on the phone in front of our kids more than we need to.

It’s useful to write a list of your important everyday phone activities. This list will be slightly different for every parent. What activities are critical for your job vs those that are fun and refreshing?

Use this list to make time to check your phone without interrupting family moments. Account for work and play on your phone – you need both.

Reassert control over your phone by figuring out how you actually use it. Don’t let it use you.

 2) Involve the Kids in a Family Discussion About Appropriate Smartphone Use 

Even young kids can contribute to a discussion about phone use around the house. This will help them understand why you occasionally need to get on the phone. It will also help them understand why you set rules on their technology usage.

David Hill of the American Academy of Pediatrics also suggests involving kids in making rules around media.

Ask them what they think appropriate electronic media use looks like and what sorts of consequences might be warranted for breaking the agreed-upon rules. You may have to help guide them in these discussions, but often you’ll find that they have expectations that are not that different from your own.

 3) Write and Post Smartphone Rules Where Everyone Can See Them 

This can be a rambling manifesto, but it’s better if it’s a simple, short list posted on the fridge. Again, they’ll be different for every family, but examples might include:

  • No phones out for the first hour after coming home
  • No phones out until the kids are in bed
  • No phones out during meals
  • No phones out during a family movie (the hardest one for me – kids’ movies are terrible).

 4) Give Kids Ten Minutes of Undivided Positive Attention 

One of my favorite family tips of all time comes from my friend Sarah Woodard, who learned about it from  Amy McCready of Positive Parenting Solutions.

It’s simple: give your kids 10 minutes of pure, undivided attention twice a day. This means you go into their world talking with them or playing with them with no interruptions. This supports positive attention and emotional connection, and it’s very doable. 10 minutes. Try it for a couple of weeks.

To make an effort to spend a mere 10 minutes of undivided time with your kid seems ridiculous. But for many (maybe most) parents, intentional time spent together can be surprisingly rare.

 5) Understand, Admit, & Overcome FOMO 

FOMO (fear of missing out) can cause real anxiety. It can make people use their phone to check up with their connections much more than is healthy, or necessary.

You’re best equipped to deal with FOMO by being honest about it. Here are some tips for dealing with FOMO.

 6) Consider Your Habit Triggers 

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg wrote  “Most of the choices we make every day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not.”

We automatically reach for our phones in certain situations. Try to pay attention to these cues or triggers. When do you automatically reach for your phone? What can you do differently during those times, besides look at your phone?  Or how can you change the way you’re using your phone in those moments to include your kids?

Charles Duhigg also wrote “The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

If might not be a bad thing of you read the news on your phone at breakfast in front of your kids – if you occasionally share something of interest with them. Kind of like the old days with the newspaper.

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” – Charles Duhigg

 7) Designate a Box or Drawer Where You’ll Stash Your Phone During Phone-Free Time 

 8) Put the Phone On Silent During Set Times 

 9) Turn off Notifications 

 10) Use “Do Not Disturb” on Your Phone During Family Time 

It’s easy to silence calls, alerts, and notifications on many iOS and Android phones while the device is locked. You can also schedule a time or choose who you’ll allow calls from.

 11) Make your device faster and more efficient to use 

You can spend less time on your phone simply by better organizing your apps.

  • Use a service like to unsubscribe to some of the email subscriptions you have to wade through just to check your important mail.
  • Rearrange your apps for greater efficiency.
  • Delete apps that waste your time. Easier said than done, but I’m glad I recently did this every time I use my phone.

 12) Use An App To Monitor Usage 

CHECKY is a simple app that tells you how many times a day do you check your phone. You’ll be surprised.

Moment is an iOS app that automatically tracks how much you use your iPhone and iPad each day. If you’re using your phone too much, you can set daily limits on yourself and be notified when you go over. You can even force yourself off your device when you’re over your limit.

Next Level, For True Addicts
  • Take a hard detox for a couple weeks. You might need to reset your experience of interacting with the world.
  • Lock Your Phone with a Long, Difficult Password – this will make it annoyingly difficult to access your phone.
  • Sell your smartphone and use a feature phone instead. The internet and all those apps will be gone, and all you’ll be back, interacting with the world.
  • Attend a Digital Detox Camp.

parent on phone in front of kid