parent opinion

'Watch me, not your phone!' The hysteria over parents on phones has to stop.

It hurts because it’s true.

There’s an image of a kid, a pained expression on a cherubic face. “I wish I was a phone,” the words read. And below: “So they [my parents] would hold and look at me all day.”

A popular meme going around social media.

Stop it. Really?

This meme isn't only on your Aunt Karen's Facebook feed. It's pinned up in health-care professionals' offices and doctors' waiting rooms.

Over at the public swimming pool, the meme's shouty cousin is propped up near the kiosk:

Look at moi. LOOK AT MOI! The swimming pool phone-shaming sign.

Yes, it hurts because it's true. I spend the entirety of my son's swimming lesson looking at my phone.

If I didn't, I wouldn't be at my son's swimming lesson. And nor would he. Because I'd still be at work.

The smart phone has freed us from the office. But it hasn't freed us from work. Quite the opposite, in fact, in-pocket email and Messenger means that your to-do list and the primary means for achieving the things on it are with you at all times.


Including at the swimming lesson.

I know, I know, I sound defensive. And that's because I am. Like every other parent I know, I am welded to my Smart phone. And like every other parent I know, I'm trying to disentangle myself from it. And like every other parent I know, I respond really, really badly to being lectured about how I'm screwing up my children.

I went to swimming lessons as a child. I also went to the park, to the movies, and to mooch around shopping centres with my friends. Were my parents staring at a hand-held computer and ignoring me while I did those things? No. Usually, because they weren't there.

Before phones, parents had other handy tricks for not being 100 per cent focused on their children 100 per cent of the time. Sometimes, while you were swimming, they were gas-bagging with the parent next to them, barely drawing breath to turn their heads and admire your tumble-turns. Or they were reading a newspaper while you were on the swings at the park. Or they just weren't there, because they had lives to get on with, and they trusted we'd be fine.

Watch: Life with and without your mobile phone. Post continues after video.

I know, I know, I still sound defensive.

After my own swimming lessons, I got myself dressed, got myself a vending-machine hot chocolate and met my folks out in the foyer for a ride home. They'd been gymming, swimming or even off shopping while my lesson was on, and somehow, miraculously, I learned the breast stroke, freestyle and how to dive to the bottom of the pool in my pyjamas to collect a rubber ring without them applauding every move.

But this isn't about swimming. It's about moral panic. Because increasingly we are aware of the momentous shift that has happened in every area of our lives since the smart phone became our constant companion. In our hand, we hold everything that's happening right now, has ever happened in the history of the world, everyone we know, every song ever sung, every movie ever made, every book ever written.

In the weight of all that, how can our all-too-real kids compete? In the weight of all that, can it possibly be a surprise that children, too, are desperate to get their hands on a screen of their very own, even before they can talk?

These are big questions, big shifts in culture that beg examination. Our worlds are so much bigger, our focus so much smaller, since we started carrying absolutely everything in one convenient rectangle in our pockets.


But when change is overwhelming, the surest reaction is panic and blame. It was once the wireless, people. And the television. And then, you know, the very existence of the World Wide Web. And now, there's little that's wrong with childhood that we can't blame parents on phones for:

  • Increased childhood visits to Emergency, as distracted parents take their eyes off their toddling feet.
  • Falling literacy standards at NAPLAN. Case in point, this cartoon in Sydney's Daily Telegraph on August 28:
  • Kids behaving badly in public spaces where a parent might be present, but not vigilant.
  • Increased attention-seeking behaviour in young children, to woo a parent's eyes from the screen.
  • Slowed developmental milestones in babies as they miss vital facial cues from phone-focussed parents.
  • Low self-esteem in children who believe themselves to not be as interesting as a device.

And, of course, many children express anger at their parents' phone - their competition, their loves' other love. They hate the damn things. Right up until the moment they get one of their own.

This is hard reading. It hurts because it's true.

But here we are. We are the guinea-pig generation of parents with phones and our kids are the guinea-pig generation of being the kids of parents with phones.

I sound defensive because I am an adult who dislikes being treated like a child, ticked off by a sign about how I choose to manage my time and my life. But truly, I know that real life doesn't live in that black mirror, it lives in the chaos and noise all around me at home.

And real life is far preferable to the passive voyeuristic experience I stroke at several times an hour.

And it's certainly true that I, like many other parents I know, escape into that phone when family life does get a little too... real.

And I'm trying to be better. And so are many, many of us. We're arming ourselves with education, and we're juggling the demands of work and family and the endless scroll of commitment and we're... trying our best.

But lecturing with memes and signs won't push us to be better. It will just make us stressed and guilty. And if there are two things that are every bit as damaging to kids as parents scrolling Instagram, it's parents acting from a place of stress and guilt.

Defensive, me?

How do you manage your phone time around your kids? 

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