“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” When it comes to device addiction, this may very well be the case. As society becomes more dependent on smartphones and as we are bombarded with new apps on a daily basis, a large percentage of the population has become chained to devices.

In many ways, it’s hard to live without; we use smartphones to navigate the route to our child’s school, to coordinate play dates, and to set reminders for school meetings and events. However, when technology shifts from supporting efficiency to promoting dependency, it can cause problems.

More specifically, when device addiction impacts a parent in a household, it is likely impacting the children, too. Kids easily absorb the behaviors and patterns of their parents, which can have ramifications on the child’s behavior and their own device use:

1. It can contribute to behavioral problems.

If you believe that how you engage with your smartphone has no impact on your children, think again. Studies have shown that excessive use of phones by parents can be linked to increased instances of behavior problems in their children.

One study looked at 200 families and noted that the children of parents with phone addictions were much more likely to have behavior issues. In short, this obsession and preoccupation with phones led to “technoference” or interruption of everyday interactions between parents and kids. In some cases, this interruption happened in face-to-face conversations, and in other cases, the devices disrupted playtime or meals. When this type of “technoference” occurred, parents rated their children as displaying more behavior problems, including whining, hyperactivity, sulking, temper tantrums, and becoming frustrated.

As we continue to face COVID-19, phone addiction is becoming an even greater problem. Children are home 24/7 and naturally, as fewer adults are working, we find ourselves spending the time surfing the internet and social media on our phones. Our children, who are already bored out of their minds, want our attention and therefore respond with undesirable behavior. As a parent, it’s your job to set aside your phone while you’re with your child and spend the majority of your screen time when you are alone. Since school has transitioned online, many children are using devices now more than ever before. Now is the time to set boundaries with device use and model good behaviors for our children.

2. It can impair language skills.

According to child development experts, there are bilateral signaling systems that occur between adults and children, aiding the construction of the basic architecture of the brain. For example, infants and toddlers are highly engaged with the vocal cues of their parents that tend to happen with simplified grammar, a high-pitched tone, and exaggerated enthusiasm. This mode of relational conversation is incredibly important to a child’s development.

With the advent of smartphones, many parents are distracted and stuck in what experts are calling “continuous partial attention” mode. This leads to significant and recurring disruptions to the parent-child conversation flow, which can impair not only a child’s language learning ability but also their trajectory for school achievement overall.

We realize that the current health crisis has given you a lot more challenges as a parent. For one, you were not previously responsible for all of your child’s learning. Unfortunately, the majority of education has now fallen to you as babysitters and daycare are no longer possible. If you are quarantined with a spouse or other family member, take turns caring for the child. While it’s your turn, make an effort to talk to the child and play games with him or her to help strengthen your child’s language skills.  While you’re not responsible, do indulge in your favorite social media channels away from your child.

3. It can lead to device addiction in children.

While your habit may seem harmless, your kids may actually be mimicking your behavior and forming a dependence of their own. One study reported that some teenagers may spend up to 12 hours—half of an entire day—online and mindlessly swiping through social media apps without engaging any one piece of content beyond a few seconds.

The study, which recorded every minute of what young people do on their phones, discovered very compulsive behaviors that occur on devices. In several instances, the subjects spent up to 12 hours split between social media apps like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat.  In most cases, subjects simply scrolled through the content, sharing or liking some, without spending any significant amount of time on any one piece of content.

In addition to wasted time, device addiction can negatively impact a child in other ways. Children who suffer from device addiction may have trouble concentrating, may be easily distracted, and may grow restless or irritable if they are unable to access their device for some reason.

Device addiction will be even more challenging during quarantine as most teenagers will want nothing more than to spend their time on social media. While talking to friends during quarantine is good because it helps teens keep in touch with the outside world, excessive use can still be harmful. Instead, think about how you can engage them in other activities. For example, go on walks with your kids without your phones or enjoy baking a cake together.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is lead by example. Try to limit time spent with technology, especially when it diverts your attention from other priorities. Shut down smartphones at dinner. Set aside phone-free time each day to engage with your children without the distraction that technology brings. While you may not be able to completely cut ties with new modes of communication, you can be sure that your children get the one-on-one time they need to develop into healthy, happy adults.

*Natalie Buchwald, LMHC is the founder and clinical director of Manhattan Mental Health Counseling. As a practitioner of holistic psychotherapy, Natalie’s treatment approach places an emphasis on the mind-body relationship and is both experiential and pragmatic.

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