Parents with Cell Phones: How Children Suffer Due to Our Distracting Devices

When my children were just entering school age, I was concerned about how often I was using my phone in front of them. My children tend to be brutally honest, so I sat them down and asked them, “Kids? What do you think daddy likes doing the most?”

I was fully anticipating their answer to be, “You like your phone a lot, papí.”

But that wasn’t the answer I received. Instead, I got something I wasn’t expecting: an epiphany.

As I waited for my children to answer my question, a mountain of pride came crumbling down into a pool of retrospective reflection. I began to realize the effects of my screen usage around my kids. While their tiny noggins noodled their response in what lasted no more than a couple seconds, I was lost in a decade of thought on what could be the effects of my tech overuse:

Phones Produce Attention Seeking Behaviors

It never ceases to amaze me how fast my kids are to interrupt me when I turn on my phone. Within seconds, they gravitate toward me to ask questions, show me their artwork, or just to come and get a hug. Sometimes, I tell them “In a minute” and other times, I try to maintain my attention on both them and my screen. Either way, if I ignore them for more than a minute, they begin to seek out my attention negatively. They’ll misbehave, start repeating requests over and over again, or even start annoying their siblings. They do this in an effort to get my attention. Whether it is consciously or subconsciously, negative or positive, they want their daddy.

This isn’t something that occurs only under my roof. As a full time 6th grade teacher, I’ve noticed this in my students as well. Students who need the most love tend to showcase negative attention-seeking behaviors. They seem incapable of empathy, uncaring, and disruptive, but truthfully, they are seeking attention that they lack due to technology overuse in their homes and in their friendship circles.

Research affirms this notion. According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other:

“‘I have quotes from college students depicting childhoods when they could not get parents’ attention during meals,’ she told NBC News. ‘What’s troubling is that parents do not respond appropriately to children seeking attention and their own distraction from the children. That’s the real story in this paper, the vicious little secret that starts the pathology we should worry about’” (

Children are acting out, mostly negatively, to their parents’ constant use of their devices and the frequent neglect of their children. This is true in my house as it is in millions of homes around the world.

We Lose Opportunities to Redirect

You know your kids better than anyone else in the world. You know when their peak hours of energy are. You can tell by the way they walk, the way they talk, even by the way they look whether or not they are going to do something productive or destructive. There are countless moments throughout your day when you are able to redirect them toward something that is good for them. Reminding them to clean up their toys before they take another one out so they can avoid having to pick up a ton of toys at one time. Making sure they finish their meal even if they think they aren’t hungry because you know that if they don’t they’ll get “hangry” an hour later. Picking them up to read a book when they realize the toy they were playing with got picked up by their sibling when they weren’t looking. We lose these opportunities to foresee negative behaviors when we are busy scrolling on our phones.

They Develop Speech Problems

Researchers have shown that the first moments of a baby’s life are critical to their psychological development. From birth to age 2, their brains are learning how to react to stimuli of all sorts and as a result, their motor skills, depth perception, and especially their linguistic abilities start developing at an incredible rate. On top of that, their sense of belonging is also fortified by constant contact from their parents’ hugs, snuggles, coos, and kisses.

Having a newborn is exhausting and, at times, kind of boring. Many parents have tried to cure their boredom by taking to their phones while they raise their babies. Their attention is distracted and, as a result, they are less talkative to their kids. They might hold them and help them physically maneuver their surroundings, but they tend to be silent as they focus their mind and energy on their screens instead of their kiddos. As a result, their children learn to speak less and observe more. Many of these babies have speech development problems due to their parents’ lack of linguistic interaction.

Research backs this up. Jenny Radesky, M.D., a child behavior expert and pediatrician at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, conducted the study with colleagues from Boston Medical Center and they found that “parent mobile device use is associated with fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions with the children” (

We All Lack Empathy

One research group decided to see if the use of devices on a regular basis would affect the abilities of adolescents to read facial expressions and body language in strangers. To do this, they invited several teens who claimed to use their screens more often than others to participate in a week-long summer camp experience. They split this group into two and, prior to leaving, had them look at pictures of strangers of who they were asked to say in what mood they were in based on their facial expressions and gestures. This was done to measure their ability to empathize with the strangers, to deduce if they were sad, angry, hungry, etc. The answers were recorded, and off they went to camp.

The two groups participated in the same excursions, activities, and the like with two differences: they went only weeks apart and one group was allowed to bring their devices while the other group was not. That meant that for one week, one group of students would only be allowed to communicate with others face-to-face, while the other group could access their social media, texts, and other digital means of communication throughout their time at camp.

Once they arrived back, they were given the same empathy test from prior to leaving for camp. The group who was able to use their technology scored slightly higher, but the group who did not use their devices for a week scored 20% higher than before. They had gotten a digital detox and, as a result of more real-life interactions, they were more able to recognize the emotions in others.

When we are attached to our screens, we are unable to focus our attention on the needs of others. Our willpower is kidnapped by our devices and our ability to detach from them gives us more reasons to look inward for our sense of belonging and not outward. Seeking out the needs of others is natural; communities since the beginning of time have forged relationships with one another through empathy not only for their psychological well-being, but for their survival. With cell phones in our hands, we see only bits of pieces of others while we completely ignore those who are within a stone’s throw of our presence. It is a dangerous circle that results in our inability to relate with others.

Stress Levels Soar

All of the aforementioned effects of cell phone use in the presence of our children lead to the overarching problem of stress. When we distract our minds from the realities at hand, we tend to play catch up in every other aspect of our lives. Since we’ve chosen to waste our time playing games or scrolling through social media, our lives become unbalanced and our responsibilities are ignored. As a result, we have to do more with less time and we drive ourselves crazy attempting to complete our daily tasks. We stay up later, wake up earlier, skip meals, cancel appointments and sacrifice time with our loved ones so we can keep our heads afloat in the ocean of life.

According to an article published in, author P.J. Manney sates:

“There is too much information for us to take in. Our brains can’t handle the barrage of emotionally draining stories told to us, and this leads to a negation or suppression of emotion that destroys empathy. The natural response is to shut down our compassion, because we are emotionally exhausted” (

The article adds: “Keith Payne and Daryl Cameron, psychologists at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducted research that demonstrates how choosing whether to experience or suppress a strong and empathetic emotion can alter our empathetic feelings. However, if we are conscious of the diminishment of empathy, we can recover it.”

The Answer

What kind of person do you want your child to be when they are older? What do you want them to do with their time? Read good books? Write their own? Enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature? Stay physically fit? Pray?

Or do you want them to watch TV and spend endless hours on their phone?

Be cautious of how often you pull out your phone in their presence. They learn from you.

When I asked my kids what they thought their daddy liked doing the most, I expected they would put the nail in my digital addiction coffin and say, “Daddy, you sure like being on your phone.”

I was wrong…

“Papí, you like mommy, snuggling with us, and writing. Those are your favorite things.”

Maybe I am doing this parenting thing right. At least my children are perceiving it that way.

I only wish I could.


T.J. Burdick the author of several books and articles on the Catholic faith. He writes and speaks on how to grow in holiness amongst the distractions and difficulties of the current age. When he is not spending time with his family or writing books, you can find him teaching courses on the Catholic faith through Signum Dei ( For more about T.J., visit his site at

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