Parental Smartphone Use Spikes During COVID-19 Pandemic

mom looks at her cellphone while baby sits on her lap

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Key Takeaways

  • Everyone is using screens and smartphones more during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that's OK.
  • A study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that parental smartphone use is unlikely to have a majorly detrimental effect on your child’s development.
  • Still, since other studies have indicated that excessive smartphone use may be problematic, it's important for parents to set boundaries with their devices.

When the weather’s nice, Christina Cay, mother of two in South Carolina, packs her kids up and takes them to the beach. There, she often takes the opportunity to make a quick phone call to her sister once the kids are happily playing by her side in the sand—their favorite summertime activity.

She was shocked when her young son said he didn’t want to go to the beach anymore. His reason? Because that’s when his mom was always on the phone. 

As parents, it can be shocking to find out exactly how our smartphone use affects our kids. The sacrifices we make for our kids each and every day are immense—shouldn’t that be evidence enough that we love them?

“I admit I felt a bit defensive when my son said that,” says Cay. “I’m with my children all day, every day. And I love being with them and playing with them. Inside, I felt a little incredulous about the fact that he didn't see that I give them all my time and this was just a quick phone call to my family that I deserved to be able to make.” 

How Does Parental Screen Time Affect Kids? 

There’s no shortage of studies that examine screen time and even smartphone use among kids of all ages. But if you’ve ever wondered how your own screen time affects your kids, a recent study seeks to answer that question.

The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, found no significant link between parents’ smartphone use and poor outcomes in their children. That means that while kids may feel a bit disregarded or dejected from time to time, in general, there may not be a catastrophic effect on their overall development.

Still, it’s clear that kids are feeling pushed aside as smartphones become an ever-present accessory in our lives. A 2015 global survey of more than 6,000 kids between the ages of 8 and 13 indicated that approximately one-third felt their parents spent more time on their device than with their children. 

Of course, you shouldn’t allow yourself to live your entire life behind a screen. Your kids need time with you, they need interaction, and most of all, they rely on you to be a positive role model.

“Parents who use their phones during parent-child interactions are less sensitive and responsive both verbally and nonverbally to their children's bids for attention, potentially leading to lower quality parent-child interactions,” according to a 2017 review published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. 

This isn’t great news at a time where our entire lives have been moved online. Not only are more parents working from home than in the past, but everything from grocery shopping to doctor’s appointments and that workout class you used to attend has now gone virtual in an attempt to keep us safe from the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus.

And although no official studies have yet been conducted, early reports indicate that screen time usage among adults during the pandemic is soaring. An article in The Washington Post noted that people are having a difficult time coming to grips with their weekly screen time report. It’s a telling outcome that may eventually begin to affect our kids. 

Screen Time for Parents: How Much Is Too Much? 

Unless you’re glued to your smartphone all day long, give yourself a break, says Jann Fujimoto, R.SLP. “Since we are currently in a situation where we’re staying apart for social, work, spiritual, and civic activities, we are naturally relying more on our screens to stay engaged with one another,” she says.

Jann Fujimoto, R.SLP

Parents may be around their children more than usual due to changes in work, school, and daycare activities. This can lead to a natural increase in stress, and a need to escape. And since there’s literally no place else to go, parents may use their phone to get this escape they’re craving.

— Jann Fujimoto, R.SLP

And before you despair too much, the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry study also found that parents who use a smartphone sparingly actually enjoyed better than average parental outcomes.

That’s likely because these parents have been able to strike a successful balance between self-care (by engaging in an enjoyable activity, or at least one that reduces stress and cuts down on our to-do list) and quality time with the kids. So you don’t have to ditch the screen entirely.

Integrative Solutions

There are a few ways to include your kids in some of the more mundane things you do on your phone. Ordering groceries from Instacart? Show your little ones how you add food to your ‘cart’ and get their input on what this week’s order might include. Having your older kids press “send” on a monthly bill can serve to give them a greater appreciation for how money is spent. 

Another option is to simply set your phone aside and make a list (mentally or on paper) of some of the major tasks you need to accomplish on your phone, and tackle them at night while your kids are sleeping, or another time they’re away or engrossed in their own activities. That way, you’re not taking time directly from them, and they don’t have to feel like they’re always vying for your attention. 

Here are some other helpful tips for how to limit the time you spend on your phone during the pandemic:

  • Set specific times of the day (ideally when kids will be otherwise occupied) to check email and social media.
  • Leave your phone in a different room when you want to spend focused time with your kids.
  • Download an app that tracks your phone usage. There are even some that will shut off certain apps when you've been using them for too long that day.

What This Means For You

It's vital to set clear boundaries when it comes to smartphone usage. It's an ideal way to get what you need to do done without constantly tuning your kids out.

Being intentional about your media usage, and understanding that not all media is created equally is the best way to start. It’s how Cay now ensures her young children enjoy their days at the beach. “I've never made one of those beach calls again. Now, I put the phone away when we get there, and leave it there.” It may take a little bit of willpower, but the effort will be well worth it in terms of how much it will benefit your relationship with your children.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. McDaniel, BT. Parent distraction with phones, reasons for use, and impacts on parenting and child outcomes: A review of the emerging researchHum Behav & Emerg Tech. 2019;1:72-80. doi:10.1002/hbe2.139

  3. Fischer-Grote L, Kothgassner OD, Felnhofer A. Risk factors for problematic smartphone use in children and adolescents: a review of existing literature. Neuropsychiatr. 2019;33(4):179-190. doi:10.1007/s40211-019-00319-8

  4. Kildare CA, Middlemiss W. Impact of parents mobile device use on parent-child interaction: A literature review. Compu Hum Behav. 2017;75:579-593. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.06.003

  5. Andrews TM. Our iPhone weekly screen time reports are through the roof, and people are 'horrified'. The Washington Post. March 24, 2020.

  6. Naslund JA, Bondre A, Torous J, et al. Social media and mental health: Benefits, risks, and opportunities for research and practiceJ Technol Behav Sci. 2020;5:245-25. doi:10.1007/s41347-020-00134-x

By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.