Friday 24 May 2019

'Mammy, did you hear what I said?' - Do parents need to put the phone away?

As a GAA club bans mobiles from the sidelines, it’s time to ask if we’re letting our phones distract us from our kids, writes Kathy Donaghy

Full attention: Kathy Donaghy goes phone-free with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Full attention: Kathy Donaghy goes phone-free with sons Oirghiall (6) and Dallan (9) Curran. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

Kathy Donaghy

'Mammy, did you even hear what I said?" The question pulled me back to the real world, away from the screen I was lost in. I had to admit I hadn't heard what my son had been asking me. He had my full attention but the moment was gone.

How many of us have experienced similar moments? As a parent in a digital-friendly job, my smartphone is always on. Its pings can pull me away from the time I'm spending with my kids even when they're not strictly work-related. The always-on nature of our smartphones can sometimes mean even when we're with our children, we're not 'with' them.

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Navan O'Mahony's GAA Club in Co Meath got so fed up with parents scrolling on the sidelines instead of watching the play that it decided to introduce a mobile phone ban for parents attending training sessions of the nursery section of the club.

A notice at the club's Brews Hill pitch reads: "Navan O'Mahonys 'Pride of Cubs' nursery is a phone-free zone. During this one hour, please put your phone away, watch your child learn a new skill and play." The club is now planning to extend the ban to cover older age groups.

While psychotherapist Stella O'Malley doesn't believe that banning parents from their phones while expecting them to endlessly watch their children play sport is the answer, she does believe parents have to mind their manners while on their phones.

O'Malley, whose new book Fragile focuses on overcoming stress and anxiety and has a whole chapter on technology, says we wouldn't dream of scrolling through social media while in the company of our friends so why would we do it in our children's company?

Rings true: Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley says it’s just rude to scroll through Facebook in front of your kids
Rings true: Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley says it’s just rude to scroll through Facebook in front of your kids

"If you have manners around your phone that should be enough. If you have to take a call when you're with your kids excuse yourself. If you're scrolling through Facebook when they're talking, that's just rude," she says.

US-based psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, believes there can be deep emotional issues for the child when parents focus on their digital world first.

"We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don't matter, they're not interesting to us, they're not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them," she says.

And yet the ubiquity of devices in our lives mean we may not even be aware we're on our phones when we're on them. It seems few of us are immune to being drawn deep into a screen as we parent. The point was illustrated beautifully by US comedian and actor Will Ferrell recently when he fronted a campaign to have device-free dinners.

In a hilarious TV ad, Ferrell plays a dad engrossed in his phone at the dinner table as his wife and children try to get his attention. Knowing he's not really listening, his family tell him all about their day. One child tells him she's started smoking, his wife tells him she's dating his brother and another child tells him she's cooking meth in the basement. Still glued to his phone, he congratulates them on their daily achievements.

According to Jeremy Pagden, who runs internet safety talks for parents all over the country, being proactive about our own internet use as parents will pave the way for responsible online behaviour in our children.

Pagden says he was doing a safety talk at a school in Sligo in the last two weeks when a mother in the audience volunteered that parents needed to lead by example, prompting a debate among all the parents in the audience.

"I now say to parents, 'We can't be hypocrites'. You should get rid of the smartphone in your own bedroom first," says Pagden.

Alex Cooney, CEO of Cybersafe Ireland and a mother of two children, says one of their key messages for parents is about modelling good behaviour. "If you are completely absorbed in your phone, what kind of message does that send out? Children are intrigued by what takes up so much of your time," she says.

And yet Cooney points out that for working parents, the lines between work and home can be blurred and juggling work from home can mean parents spending time on devices. Having strict rules around no devices at the dinner table and none in the bedroom is important. "We do need to be mindful of monitoring our own screen time and we need to use those tools that help us do that," says Cooney.

But rather than beat ourselves up as parents, both Cooney and psychotherapist Stella O'Malley believe that balance is key. O'Malley points out that today's parents are spending more time with their kids than parents of the '60s and '70s when the attitude was more about kids entertaining themselves.

While we don't have to look far for examples of how not to do it as parents (one Tumblr feed features an endless stream of damning pictures of people ignoring their kids), neither do we consider how our smartphones may have liberated us either.

In my own working life, having my phone means I can work from anywhere. I can take the kids out and about and still be contactable. I can make their swim lessons and file copy to my editors from the coffee shop. I can sit in the car at the athletics club and send an email to arrange interviews or in the private and quiet space of my car, conduct an interview for an article.

I may not see every hand pass my children achieve, every goal they score or every sprint they run but I am there when they come off the track or field as much as I can be. Working parents everywhere will recognise this as a small victory. Where before they would have been tied to an office, the smartphone means that for a period of time at least they can be anywhere and still get the work done.

And when my kids come and tell me all about their day, I'll do my best to be present and hear all about it. For most of us the 9-to-5 doesn't exist; the boundaries of our lives extend beyond a traditional clocking-out time.

As in everything with parenting, there's no such thing as perfect. I hope that my kids won't have to ask me if I'm even listening too often. Getting unplugged, getting outside and having phone-free times and zones seems like a good way to go. Having good phone manners also seems like a no-brainer. But if I miss a match I hope my kids realise I'm still doing my best.

Irish Independent

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