The Importance of Leaving the Phone Off When Talking to Your Children
Once I was at a dear friend of mine’s house. We were talking in the living room, and suddenly somebody called him on his smartphone. It was his kid. Who was right upstairs and didn’t want to come down to ask him if he had seen his favorite shirt.
It got me thinking, why on earth, wouldn’t you come down and ask? Is this something that happens often? Why did my friend allow that?
You probably think it wasn’t a big deal, but today, inspired by a friend’s story, I would love to explain why what happened was very wrong, and how we have been changing the way we communicate with our children has been hurting them and us.
The new Zombie Era
I love my phone. I love spending time on my phone. I love getting notifications, sharing pictures with my loved ones, reading the news, sending voice notes, everything. The thing is: I’m an adult; I know when to stop to fulfill my responsibilities.
Children, on the other hand, know little about time management. Not to mention that they have way more free time than adults, so staying glued to their phones is something that happens naturally.
I call it the new zombie era, not because before we didn’t have zombies, we did. Different generations have become zombies for many reasons: the radio, newspapers, fantasy novels, TV, and now smartphones.
When we look back, none of those things were as harmful as mobile phones are because though they interrupted our reality, we couldn’t reach for those things anytime, anywhere. Most importantly, those other things weren’t meant to determine how we communicate with our loved ones and everybody else.
Smartphones have changed our lives forever. The device is not harmful or damaging in any context, but the way our children and we use it could lead to trouble.
Smartphone Misuse Could Lead to Troubles at Home and School
By 2019 half of 11-year-old children in the US had a smartphone. Can you imagine how much that number has grown in a year?
Again, the problem is not the smartphone itself; it is how children use it and its consequences.
It has been proven extensive smartphone exposure can lead to anxiety, depression, and body dysmorphia. It also changes the way children communicate with adults, their peers, and pretty much everyone else in the real and virtual world.
For example, there’s something Social Psychologists call “de-individuated communication” it refers to the mask social media and the screen of that smartphone give us.
Even if you have your real-life picture on Twitter, talking through social media gives us a sense of “bravery” that we probably don’t have in reality. It is easier for us to talk about certain things online than talking about them in person.
The classic example is a breakup scenario. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and a person will probably be either angry, confused, or crying. It’s normal wanting to avoid uncomfortable scenarios.
But, adults understand what is wrong with a break up via WhatsApp. What’s the equivalent for children? What are they not getting?
Well, for instance. Whenever something “funny” happens at school, sometimes involving some kid being embarrassed. Maybe he fell, he felt sick, got rejected, fainted at gym class, etc. What do other kids do now? Yes, they either take a picture or record it.
Why? Most of them don’t have an answer for that. It’s an impulse. “I have to record this.”
But let’s go further, how do they face that issue if no adult is around? How many children on their school’s WhatsApp group do you think are mature enough to say that action was wrong?
The anonymity the group gives them is strong, even with their phone numbers, picture, and names exposed.
Now export that anonymity to daily home interactions. Telling your child through a text that they have to do their homework before playing may result in “yeah, sure. Later.”
They think they are in control. And sadly, it is true. As long as you keep feeding their habits, adults will be the ones without power.
The Psychological Dangers of the Smartphone for Children
You already know this part. You are quite aware of the dangers of the online world, at least the most obvious ones.
They are susceptible to grooming techniques, making friends that are adults. They are exposed to violent and pornographic content, but the worst part is they have access to those things 24/7.
However, there’s another threat that not many people pay attention to language development and communication skills.
Not everything can be answered with an emoji; not every conversation can finish with “yeah, sure. Later,” and some conversations can’t occur through a screen.
Yes, there’s an addictive component that demands them to be online and available at all times. I’m not asking you to understand this urge. Still, I am asking you to be aware of your house’s general rules and notice that the more you interact through your mobile with your children, the more emotionally alienated they will be.
How to Communicate Effectively with Your Children
I have worked with many parents worried about this smartphone issue at home in my profession, and I have discovered interesting facts I would like to share with you.
Parents don’t know how to interact online with their kids. And that’s perfectly normal, different generations, interests, and on top of that, a different era.
Most parents give instructions instead of explaining why a particular task needs to be done immediately.
Sending a text to your kid saying, “Please clean up your room; it has been a few weeks since you last did it, and it’s important to have it cleaned, so you feel good in it, and finding things there will be easier,” is not the same as saying, “clean your room right now or you will not go out to play today.”
It’s significantly different when you say the right thing in person.
Communicating in person builds strong relationships and diminishes children’s chances of thinking they are in control of the situation. There’s an immediate demand made by someone with power (you). There is no possible alternative but to comply with it because there’s no physical or psychological variable that makes it possible to avoid it (like smartphones).
Building an honest, open, and welcoming communication with our children that leaves smartphones only for necessary means leads to feelings of worth, being cared for, improves the cooperation between those involved, and helps you identify dangerous behaviors or scenarios.
A great example of this is how your kid reacts when you ask him or her how’s school.
In real life, they don’t have the time to think for an answer; they have no choice but, to be honest. It’s not that hard to find out when a kid is lying, which means you can be more aware of what is going on.
If you only ask him or her these questions on the phone, they can reduce the conversation to “okay” or “as usual.” As parents, we need more information; we need them to feel open and safe enough to talk to us.
If you think being the cool parent and accept communicating essential matters on the phone is a way to get their attention, sorry, my friend, but it’s the wrong approach.
Below I provide some tips to develop better communication with your children.
Rules Are Rules
We all want to be close to our kids, but the fact is: rules are rules.
Your house should be where they feel safe, happy, understood, comfortable, and entertained. When an adult gives a command, there can be a negotiation, but the adult should always have the final word.
Keeping track of simple house rules, such as no shoes on, dishes must be done by a different family member each night, common areas should remain organized, no eating in the living room, and whatever other rules you have at home should be respected at all times. Including, of course, phone hours.
However, these rules apply to everybody, not just children. A good recommendation is having “family hours,” which often are dinner and some weekend activities. Just don’t force it. Make your child’s voice matter and listen to what he likes to do. Include those things in your family hours.
Addiction Is Addiction
To this point, we are all a little addicted to our smartphones. As adults, we have difficulties separating from our phones because of work, we love being informed in real-time of what’s going on in the news, and of course, we also love Instagram’s entertainment.
Children also have this kind of pressure: not liking your crush’s photo the minute it was posted, missing out on the new pop artist’s video, not showing your followers what you are doing.
It may sound silly to you, but at their age and in this century, that’s a huge deal.
When talking to your kids about social media and smartphone addiction, don’t patronize them nor act like you know everything. Instead, share your thoughts and emotions about it.
Create an environment where discussions can be made respectfully, so they can see that it’s not “an order,” it’s something that happens to both of you and needs to be handled to avoid negative outcomes.
Let Them Socialize for Real
Yes, we are still facing some COVID-19 restrictions worldwide, but that doesn’t mean we need to encourage online interactions over real-life ones, especially for children.
If they can go to school, they can play in the park. You are the one who needs to keep the mask on and insist on better hand hygiene to avoid getting ill.
Invite their friends over, keep track of their close friends’ parents to avoid possible infected family members, and move on… there’s no secret to it.
It will help them develop social skills, forget about the phone for a few hours, and give you the chance to relax knowing they are safe.
This is a critical aspect of a child’s proper development. Please don’t take it lightly; it’s not a “boomer thing” like kids will say these days. Social media is changing the way we express ourselves. Constant exposure with little or no real social interactions can lead to becoming socially disabled and not knowing how to communicate appropriately without a mobile device.
To avoid turning your house into a military base, you must learn to explain yourself in terms your children can understand.
Don’t give out orders all day. Explain to them why. Yes, some things must be answered with “because I say so.” But every single rule or command? Maybe not so much.
Explain a maximum of three times why they need to do something (or stop doing it). By the fourth time the order was not understood, ask them why “they forgot” or didn’t pay attention. Make them think instead of simply reacting.
Promote the Conversation
This may sound like a digital marketing tip, but it’s important to create an open and safe space for children to talk to you. Which, sadly, doesn’t mean they will always come running to tell you everything, so it’s your job to be patient and promote the conversations.
Children, especially when they get closer to adolescence, will not want to talk to you often. Instead of acting angry or hurt, understand that this is a phase and encourage them to keep on talking.
Door opener statements, like “How about that!” or “Really? And now what?” makes them feel heard.
This will be a challenging task, but we can never get tired of doing what’s best for our children as adults.
As a final tip to have better communication with your kid: avoid unkind words and negative labels. Even if you think it’s sweet to call him or her names, make sure it doesn’t make them feel embarrassed, sad, or less important.
It will help you create a bond and keep the conversation flowing.