Enough with the moral panic about our phone use
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Enough with the moral panic about our phone use

What other alternative is there?

What other alternative is there?

Photo: Stocksy

How do you entertain a sick four-year-old who’s about to crack it in the doctor’s waiting room?

It’s one of the many lose-lose situations of motherhood. Do you let your daughter follow her natural inclinations, have a tantrum, and thereby earn the label “Bad Mother Who Can’t Even Control Her Child In Public — Even Around Sick People?”

Or, alternatively, do you distract your child with a screen, thereby earning the social opprobrium reserved for “Bad Mothers Who Can’t Manage Her Child Without A Phone (And Probably Is Harming Said Child’s Development And Will Later Regret All The Precious Moments She Missed)”?

I chose the second option last week, and pulled out my mobile phone, brought up ABC For Kids and told my daughter to go for it.

Right on cue, I got a look from the woman sitting across from me.

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Before I knew it, I was on the brink of moral panic about kids and screens. Just that morning I read a news article — on my screen of course — with the headline screaming: “Duty of Care: Mothers' excessive use of mobile phones is driving behavioural problems among children, study finds”.

According to researchers from Illinois State University and University of Michigan Medical School, children who experience “technoference”, which is where everyday interactions are interrupted by digital or mobile devices, were more likely to exhibit sulking, whining, displays of easily hurt feelings, hyperactivity, temper tantrums and becoming easily frustrated.

And here’s the kicker, these poor behaviours in children were more closely linked to the mother’s phone usage rather than the father’s.

And we especially can’t use our phones at the dinner table. Yet another piece of research, this time from Michigan University’s medical school, shows that when mothers have their phones out at the table, there is a 20 per cent drop in verbal interactions, a 39 per cent drop in non-verbal communication and a 28 per cent decline in the mothers encouraging their children.

But who needs research? People don’t like mothers on mobile phones, full-stop. Just look at the faux-outrage heaped on Constance Hall last week after a photo following the birth of her son was posted to Facebook.

The photo shows her husband changing their newborn son’s nappy. Hall meanwhile is in the background on her phone.

Cue the hand-wringing. Hall’s apparent crime was that she dared not spend every moment being smitten with her son. Never mind the fact that Hall’s husband seemed to have everything well in hand. Like so much of parent judging, it’s all about what mums are doing and not doing.

Unless we’re giving our children 100 per cent of our attention 100 per cent of the time, we’re deemed to be failing at motherhood.

But before we all start down the path of “Mother’s on Phones are The End of Civilisation Because Research”, let’s get some perspective.

First, most mothers are keenly aware that, in addition to mothering, we’re also expected to manage the family, care for aging parents and sick relatives, build careers, support our partners’ career, and volunteer for school and other kid-related community initiatives.

Most of these activities rely on mobile phones. In fact, many of these actives simply could not happen if it were not for mobile phones. The coordination, organisation and juggling of activities now presumes mothers are connected via phones and are on social media platforms.

Second, let’s get some perspective on our fears that phones at dinner tables are going to harm our children. A generation ago, many kids weren’t allowed to speak at the dinner table at all. My father tells stories of being beaten with a strap if he and his brothers spoke at the table, which strikes me as a far greater deterrent to parent-child communication than a mobile phone is ever going to be.

And third, there has never been a single period in the history of the world where mothers have given their kids their undivided attention, all the time. And yet humanity has survived and prospered. Kids need to learn to wait, that other people have needs too, and that mummy is a fully-formed human being and not just their service provider.

Back in the doctor’s waiting room, I realised that every single person was staring at something. Kids were looking at screens, older people were looking at trashy magazines. What difference does it make if the content is displayed on paper or glass?

Not a single person was engaging in face-to-face conversation. And do you know what? As far as I could tell, not one precious moment was being created.

I also realised that the woman who’s reading an exposé on Britney’s cellulite in a magazine that’s about a decade out of date is in no position to be judging anyone’s parenting.

Writer, author of '30-Something and Over It'. View more articles from Kasey Edwards.