Many parents worry that their children spend too much time absorbed by their phones. But in a recent poll, 50% of kids said that their parents get distracted by phones when kids are trying to talk to them. If those children are right, parents might benefit from putting their phones away when spending time with their children.

To put this idea to the test, we invited 200 parents to alter their phone use while visiting a science museum with their children. We asked half of the parents to use their phones as little as possible during their visit to the museum. We told the other parents to use their phones as much as they safely could. Parents then explored the museum with their children and completed a survey after their visit.

Parents who minimized their phone use reported feeling less distracted during their visit to the museum compared to those who used phones more. Feeling less distracted, in turn, was linked to other benefits: Parents who limited their phone use felt more socially connected while with their children. Those parents were also more likely to feel greater sense of meaning and purpose in life by the time they left the museum.

Importantly, visiting the museum was still a positive experience for most parents whether or not they used their phones heavily, suggesting that parents’ phone use does not necessarily ruin their experience during family time. And one type of phone use was even linked to greater social connection: using phones to enhance their children’s experience at the museum by, for example, pulling up information about the exhibits. 

Phone use diminished parents’ experience with their children at a museum, but we wondered whether phone use matters as much in the mundane activities of daily life. We recruited almost 300 parents from across the U.S. and asked them to complete online surveys every day for one week. Each evening, parents answered questions about what they had been doing in the past 30 minutes, including socializing, relaxing, using their smartphones, preparing food, and eating. We also asked whether they had been with other people, including their children. Our results showed that when parents reported not using their phones at all during the preceding half hour, they felt less distracted while spending time with their children. And the less distracted they were, the more connected they felt to their children.

Notably, the benefits of minimizing phone use were greater in the science museum than in daily life. Perhaps it is more valuable to put phones away during meaningful experiences, like family outings, than during a typical evening at home.

Concerned about the well-being of their children, many parents today try to manage and monitor their children’s screen time. Fueled by those worries, some parents even take classes or hire coaches on “digital parenting.” Without negating the importance of helping children navigate their digital lives, our research shows that parents should also focus on managing their own. 

For Further Reading:

Kushlev, K., & Dunn, E. W. (2019). Frequent smartphone use distracts parents from reaping the benefits of spending time with their children. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(6), 1619-1639.

Kushlev, K., Dwyer, R., & Dunn, E. W. (in press). The social price of constant connectivity: Smartphones impose subtle costs on well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Kostadin Kushlev studies the intersection between digital technology, health, and happiness; he is an assistant professor at Georgetown University.  Elizabeth Dunn studies how time, money, and technology shape happiness. She is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.