Are you a distracted parent? Learn how social media is affecting the way we parent.

What’s the saying?“When you point your finger at someone, there are four pointing back at you.” 

So it is when we tell our kids to get off their devices, stop the online game and come to dinner… only to see mom and dad checking their email or their own Facebook account. No pointing fingers here, just a reminder that our kids watch our behavior, for better or for worse. 

Perhaps we are as addicted to our devices as our children, distracted in our parenting. 

How has social media impacted our parenting and what can we do to change it? Here are four ideas:

1. We Miss Out

Nothing grieved me more than to see a parent taking their child for a stroller ride, with their child gazing up expectantly at them, only to see the parent talking on their cell phone. And now the addition of social media makes the missing out far worse. 

It’s not just the cell phone conversation anymore, it’s the constant newsfeed, Facebook updates, addictive finger swiping. All distractions that take us away from precious moments and protective duties. We have probably all missed out while checking our device or picking up a phone call. 

Our consequence might be our missing the home run, our delay in rescuing a hurt child or our close call while driving. 

Can we cut out our social media cold turkey? Probably not. 

But we can put limits and boundaries around how and when we are engaged with social media, asking ourselves about our own need and addictions along the way. Begin by curbing social media use to the hours that your children are at school or in bed. Most newsfeed items, emails, and Facebook posts about your friends on vacation can wait.

2. We Compare Ourselves

Social media posts about your friend’s vacation to some incredible hideaway or their child’s great successes don’t really make us feel better about our own situation. We often come away from reading these updates feeling guilty, negligent, or unfortunate; yet we have a hard time looking away. We even ask for advice from the social media universe (which might include people you hardly know!) 

Distracting ourselves with social media might mean that we spend less time seeking the healthy guidance or connected conversations that can positively impact the way we parent. Consider editing the “friends” list you have on social media. Ask yourself what might be influencing your need to check how many people have “liked” your post or responded to your picture. 

Examine how many of your close relationships are now virtual rather than personal and aim to change that.

3. We are Constantly Accessible

Back in the “old days” of answering machines, it was agony for my kids to listen to messages being left for them during dinner. We had, and still have, a rule that the telephone is not answered while we are having a meal. But now, it seems that the cell phones have a spot at the table! Phones vibrate, ping, ring, texts come in and eyes gaze down. 

And it is not just the kids who are distracted! 

We have become addicted and dependent upon staying connected. Whether it’s habit, a need to get away for a moment from our situation or a fear that we will miss something important, we are constantly and dysfunctionally accessible. 

To the extent we are accessible to everyone else, we are inaccessible to those who deserve our attention—our children during family time, our colleagues during our meeting times, our spouses during private time. Model technology restraint for your family. Leave phones out of family time. Don’t sleep with your phone and allow calls to go to voicemail. Social media and phone calls can wait.

4. Declining Communication Skills

As a therapist for couples and families, I frequently hear tales of family and marital strife being texted back and forth. And sadly, even fond feelings are reduced to an emoji or chat speak abbreviations. Our devices contribute to declining communication skills (IMHO) and distract us from trying to have a meaningful eye to eye conversation. 

Couples date and break up over text (BTW, ILY--JK). Parents implement consequences over text and congratulate their child on social media. And sadly, many of our children are playing with online friends rather than with their friends outdoors. 

Rather than rebuking our children for their communication skills, we might have to learn their language, talk to them about their interests (even if it’s a video game), and actually thank them (in person) for texting you their whereabouts. In time, maybe they’ll even have a verbal conversation with you; make sure your eyes aren’t glued to your own device!

“The term ‘distracted’ is so loaded” says Dr. Jenny Radesky, a development pediatrician at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. We’ve been distracted for years with telephones, bringing work home, newspapers and hobbies. But, as Dr. Radesky suggests, the interactive technology and social media are designed to be emotionally absorbing and habit forming. 

It’s up to us, as parents, to put reasonable boundaries and importance on our children’s social media along with our own.

About Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD is a psychotherapist in Southern California with private practices in Santa Monica and Malibu. She helps parents, children, couples and individuals. A graduate of UCLA and Fuller School of Psychology, Dr. Miller also is involved in school-based education and consultation, an adjunct faculty member of the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Psychology, a wife, mother, and stepmother. 

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