Parents' Cell Phone Use Can Lead to Depression, Anxiety in Children

Think you’re bothered by the constant bing of notifications on your cell phone? Your baby is infuriated. Repeatedly being driven to distraction at such a young age can have detrimental, lifelong consequences.

According to a recent study published in Time, “distracted parental attention may sometimes have detrimental effects on babies’ development, especially their ability to process pleasure.” In other words, making sure your baby’s basic needs are met isn’t enough to ensure they won’t suffer psychologically as adults. Parents who are constantly distracted create the kind of stressful, unpredictable environment that leads to depression and anxiety. There are short-term consequences as well:

...knowing that at a certain time every day, for example, food will come, or that when a toy appears, mom will play. If mom is distracted by a call or a message alert, and turns to the cell phone instead, then this pattern gets broken and the crucial learning that should occur might not happen.

Only this morning I was met with a confused glare as I pulled out the phone to call Grandma during playtime. “Mom,” my six-month old glared at me, “this is playtime. Not phone time.” Lately I’ve taken to adapting mindfulness to my parenting, making a conscious note of how I’m engaging with my son. It doesn’t take long for me to lose interest in the repetitive simplicity of babyhood and start searching out an intellectual outlet. Usually that means Tweeting with friends. Suddenly, playtime becomes all about grabbing mom’s phone and it goes downhill from there. Learning disrupted, indeed.

The frenetic pattern only worsens as your baby matures. How many toddlers have you seen playing with their parents’ phones in the food store? Electronic devices are being handed over like candy to coddle children now accustomed to overstimulation and tech addiction. In a few years these toddlers will be placed before screens for the majority of their school day and afterwards, often at the expense of free play. To put a modern twist on an old adage: Give a kid a tablet and he'll be occupied until the battery dies. Give a kid the world and he'll have an occupation for life.

Just as technology isn’t only for adults, free play isn’t only for children. My best learning experiences growing up in the decade before cell phones involved traveling with my parents. Whether it was to the local used bookstore or a small town hundreds of miles away, I was always encouraged to do the same thing: explore and report back. They’d pick the location, I’d pick the subject of interest and together we’d play with nary a Tweet to come between us.

Mister Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” It’s the work of adulthood as well. To this day I schedule “playdates” with my mother to see films and live theater, to tour museums and walk cities in the pursuit of serious learning. Her cell phone stays buried in her purse.

Ours should, too.