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Can You Hear Me Now? What Parents Need To Know About Their Cell Phones

Bonnie Harris

Responsibilities & Values

Much has been written about restricting children’s screen time to insure their safety and wellbeing and protect them from cyberspace predators and bullies. Little, however, has been said about the child’s perspective when parents are unavailable and distant—victims of their own screen dependencies.

We have a new culture of parents accustomed to having the world accessible in their pockets. Parents talk or text pushing a stroller, driving a car, supervising playtime, etc., with apparently no understanding of the effect of their behavior.

Unintentionally the message sent to the child is I’m unavailable. Is it any wonder children demand attention with louder and more dramatic behaviors?

The developmental stage of egocentrism in the first six years of life, together with an immature prefrontal cortex not able to analyze incoming data, means the young child takes it like it is. She doesn’t see Dad learning new information or connecting with a friend. She is more likely to see that she is unimportant.

No teaching tool is more powerful than modeling. It has been wisely said that we need to be the people we want our children to become. Children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.

The unavailability of a parent on the phone is nothing new. What is new is the availability of our phones—our favorite toys, most important possessions, new body parts. No wonder even tiny children want to play with them.

It is the job of parents’ to own and take responsibility for their actions, emotions, and desires and never blame them on their children. “You make me so mad” sends the unintended message that you are responsible for my feelings.“ Why do I always have to yell ten times to get you to do what I say?” tells the child that you are responsible for my yelling.

Parents must take responsibility for the messages sent to children when tech devices appear more important. If they seem so valuable, where do we expect the child’s focus to land? Earlier and earlier children are demanding their own cell phones, iPads, and iPods. 31% of 8 to 10-year-olds have cell phones. Earlier and earlier children are getting hooked into the unemotional, non-interactive world of cyberspace where anything goes.

6 Tips for Parent On-Screen Use

  • Put devices away in the presence of your child.
  • If you must use a phone, keep it on vibrate and check messages later.
  • Choose times of the day for use when the child is napping, in school, playing with friends or you are out.
  • When out with your child, leave your cell phone at home.
  • If you are on a cell phone around your child, make sure to use a headset.
  • When you must be on your phone or computer, respond with understanding to your child’s anger and frustration.

All it takes is awareness of what you look like to your child on a cell phone or iPad to set standards for yourself that will serve your child.

Take Responsibility

Most children are not able to directly say, “Mom, I don’t like it when you are on your phone and not paying attention to me.” But their behavior will tell you if you know how to interpret it. Validate her cues with, “I bet you don’t like it when I am on my phone. It must seem like I’m not even here.”

Don’t remain in the dark with your attention on the next text rather than your child’s view of you texting. Make sure you are not modeling irresponsible behavior that you least want to see in your child. Keep communication open now and always so it doesn’t breakdown when it is most necessary later on.

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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook