Parental 'phubbing': How caregivers glued to their phones are affecting kids

A mother settles in with her mobile phone as her daughter struggles with homework.
Parental 'phubbing' harms kids, a study finds. (Illustration: Oscar Duarte for Yahoo; Photo: Getty Images) (Illustration by Oscar Duarte for Yahoo / Photo: Getty Images)

Between the rush of dopamine that comes after winning a game of Words With Friends to the strong pull of catching up on Facebook posts, it’s no secret that many people are tethered to their phone.

At the same time, it’s important to be mindful of “phubbing,” aka “phone snubbing.” This refers to those who are preoccupied with their phone in a social setting, ignoring the people around them. For parents, the consequences may be more significant than they realize.

According to a recent study in Frontiers, parents “phubbing” their children is associated with high social anxiety and low self-control in adolescents, which increases adolescents’ risk of academic burnout. It can leave children feeling “rejected and neglected” by their parents, according to the study.

So how exactly can this be detrimental to kids? And what can parents do to avoid falling into the trap of getting caught up on their phones? Here’s what experts say.

How parental 'phubbing' affects kids and teens

To some degree, parents being on their phones around kids is normal and expected. But here’s where the problem arises: Kids learn how to behave from their caregivers, and they also need their attention and support. So when parents are always on their phones, kids don’t learn healthier ways to engage with people, nor do they receive all the love and attention they should get from their parents. Further, they're more likely to copy their parents’ constant phone use.

“Parental responsiveness to and reflection of their children is what provides them with validation and allows them to extend their own social and regulation skills,” Dr. Jennifer Weber, a child and adolescent psychologist and director of behavioral health at PM Pediatric Care, tells Yahoo Life. “Without this input, children receive inconsistent feedback, and behaviorally, such inconsistency leads to poorly attained and retained skills.”

As a result, Weber continues, children struggle more with self-esteem, self-control and social skills in the long term. They feel less special, learn fewer coping skills and don’t get as many examples of how in-person interactions are supposed to go.

Feeling ignored can also simply be hurtful. “Do we really need a study to prove that it’s painful when a loved one chooses their phone over you?” Mary Van Geffen, an international parenting coach who teaches a digital course called Tweens and Teens, tells Yahoo Life. She’s not talking about typical to-do list things — school emails, paying bills, grocery shopping — but mindless scrolling. “It can look like going out to dinner and picking up your phone to check social media at the table,” she says. “Or playing Candy Crush while your child is going through their morning routine.”

Reena B. Patel, a parenting expert, positive psychologist and educational behavior analyst, knows how hard it is to struggle to resist reaching for your smartphone, but warns that it does have consequences. “Truly, all kids want is your attention,” she tells Yahoo Life. “As a parent, giving that attention all the time can be hard. Having your phone out is a clear distraction that takes away from a parent being present with their kids.”

That’s where the side effects the study refers to come into play. When kids don’t see helpful modeling of self-control and social interactions from their parents, they struggle to deal with them on their own. “Children who have problems controlling themselves and feel social anxiety are more likely to have parents who use their phones excessively,” Patel says. “They are more likely to develop academic burnout because they don’t have their parents’ support.”

When those children become tweens and teens, they're usually less likely to speak up unprompted, according to Geffen. So, it’s important that parents do the prompting — and pay attention. “We parents have to create spaces where we have nothing immersive going on,” she says. “Only then can we hope to pick up on the cues and unpredictable bids for connection they might be making.”

Teens who copy their parents’ constant phone use can also face challenges later on, when entering the workforce. Patel says that research shows that in the interview process, “They have a harder time with interpersonal skills and making eye contact with the interviewer.”

How to spend less time glued to a screen

Putting down your phone or leaving it in another room is easier said than done, however. For many people, whipping out their phones to read new emails or catch up on social media posts is basically second nature. Here’s what can help, according to experts.

Set times that will be phone-free: Since this will probably be difficult, it’s OK to take baby steps. “We need to start small and commit to a specific window of time where we will be absolutely present and phone-free,” Van Geffen says. She suggests putting phones in a kSafe for a few hours or using an app, like Opal, that can restrict app use for a defined period of time.

Weber encourages setting the same phone-free window for the whole family, and using that time to connect. “While you may indeed have to pick your device up again for work or an important phone call with a friend or family member, make efforts to use this particular 'lights-out' time — dinner time, movie night, drives to and from sports practice — sacred and focus on connection,” she says, encouraging family members to share what happened during the day.

Organize the day’s to-do list ahead of time: Patel knows parents have a lot of things to think about and plan, as well as errands to run. “It can be overwhelming as a parent and hard to be present with what is currently in front of you, when your brain is running behind the scenes,” she says.

To help with this, she encourages people to put all their attention into whatever they're doing, whether that’s errands, catching up with kids or enjoying time alone, rather than constantly multitasking. “Dividing up your day allows you to be better present for what is in front of you,” she explains. “It also is a way to call yourself out if you are with your kids but have your phone out.”

Get sensory input another way: Feeling the need to fidget in some way? That’s OK — just try to think about other ways of handling it. “Attending to your body makes it easier to stay present, in lieu of the dopamine hits your system will be missing,” Van Geffen says. “Taking a short walk in the evening with your teen might be an embodied habit of connection.”

Weber agrees. “Schedule time for connection outside the home, where it would be less tempting to be consistently on your phone,” she says.

Beside walks outside, this could include going out to eat, working at a craft together or playing a board game after dinner.

Be proactive about making plans: Turning to Twitter is especially easy when there’s nothing else to do, so figuring out another activity is key. “If you know your family will be home for most of the day, plan a few activities to limit any unwanted screen time and get their energy out,” Patel suggests, such as working on a puzzle or a craft together or playing kickball in the backyard. “Ask yourself, ‘Where do we use our phones the most?’ Replace with family activities.”

Accountability is key: Van Geffen recommends leaving phones in a public spot for accountability’s sake during phone-free time. Another suggestion: Set up a keyword that kids can use if they're feeling ignored by a parent on the phone. “A silly or playful word keeps it lighthearted, while also drawing attention to the problem you want to solve,” Weber says.

Lastly, Van Geffen would like to remind parents they aren’t alone in this struggle. “Talented programmers and strategists have worked to build something you can’t put down,” she says. “I am incredibly proud of anyone making the effort.”

Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.