How parents can balance their smartphone use with family time

Phones are a useful part of family life. Finding the right balance, rather than completely eliminating them, is key

Smartphones are an integral and very useful part of family life, so nobody is suggesting parents should ditch them. However, here are seven small changes that could help mitigate the downside of having a child in one hand and a smartphone in the other.

1) Detach the phone from your body

Leaving it in another room to enable you to give children your full attention will reap benefits. Eight minutes of undivided, one-on-one time with a child the moment a parent steps in the door at the end of a working day is all it takes to pave the way for a happier evening for both, says Sheila O’Malley, who gives workplace talks on wellbeing and parenting. This is likely to prevent the all-too-familiar, escalating cycle of a child acting out to attract the attention they crave from an increasingly irritated parent.

2) Turn off notifications

Eyes and minds are inevitably drawn to audible, vibrating or visible alerts on phones. Putting it on silent and turning off notifications makes it more likely that you’ll deal with incoming communications at planned times and not halfway through a game of snakes and ladders.

3) Set boundaries around work

Making yourself uncontactable by internet-enabled phones outside office hours can be challenging, especially for those working for global companies operating across different time zones. But setting boundaries is crucial, says O’Malley, especially now that working from home blurs the lines. She likes to use a hula hoop during her workplace talks to illustrate the importance of ring-fencing time for family.


“It’s your life; no one is paying you to work until midnight. Say no to what isn’t right for you, while remaining adaptable and flexible,” she advises. Ask your “is it me or the company?” and act accordingly.

“We don’t have to be on every call; we don’t have to be 24/7 available; everything is not equally important. Boundaries are about valuing yourself, your time, your relationships, your health, your energy.” Maybe it’s a case of putting phones aside, at least between 6.30pm and 8.30pm. That’s the time many households regroup after a day apart and younger children need a focused bedtime routine. It doesn’t mean you won’t take calls outside normal working hours but just not during that period. Or, if you do once, trying to ensure the exception will not become the rule.

“You have to have the courage to speak up and push back,” she says, adding that she sees people who do that “generally get the wriggle room they need”.

4) Target unintentional phone use

We all know how one online interaction begets another, sucking away time and attention. That’s not to say there is never a time for scrolling at a whim, but avoid it when children are around. Instead, limit phone use to intentional and necessary connections.

Turn off auto-play so videos don’t start to play as you scroll, luring you in. Likewise on streaming platforms, says forensic psychologist Maureen Griffin, so you’re not into the next episode before you know it.

5) Involve the child

Talking on a phone rather than reading its screen allows parents of infants to maintain that all-important eye contact and avoids the upsetting “still face” syndrome. Explanations of why and how you are using the phone can also help to sustain child-parental engagement

6) Discuss phone habits with teenagers

Teenagers don’t take kindly to any kind of parental hypocrisy, so it’s crucial to be open with them about our own phone use, says Griffin.

In trying to empower teenagers in the safe and healthy use of phones, we should talk about how we use our devices; what we enjoy, what we dislike and be candid about our own struggles with them. Likewise ask them what they enjoy, what annoys them and what they would like to change.

“There is no ‘one big talk on online safety’,” she adds, “it is a million small conversations”.

7) Recognise the power of parental collaboration

Agreement by parents across a Co Wicklow community to introduce a “no smartphone until secondary school” voluntary code has attracted not only national but international attention.

“If you don’t want to sign up, you don’t have to,” says Philip Moyles, chairman of the parents’ association (PA) at St Kevin’s NS in Greystones, one of eight schools involved. But for those who do from this September, “the beauty is the strength in numbers”, making it much easier to hold the line against children’s formidable pester power. While he acknowledges they will have “missed the boat” for some children going into fifth and sixth class who already have phones, they hope that in a year or two, there will be no pupils in their school who have a smartphone.

Erika Clune, a mother of two children aged six and 10 who attend St Kevin’s, suggested back in January that the PA adopt this initiative after she heard it had been done in nearby Delgany NS. Their plans then dovetailed with what other schools were doing and she hopes that the community-wide response, announced in May, will make children waiting until at least age 12 for a smartphone “the new norm”.

This is not solving issues around phones, merely postponing them until children might be more mature to cope, points out Clune, who agrees parents have to be mindful of their own phone use in tandem with delaying their offspring’s access to a device of their own.

“There is has no doubt that children seeing parents hooked on their phones gives them more of a desire to have one for themselves.”

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Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting