The lure of the smartphone

Giuseppe Milo, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Giuseppe Milo, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

A father and media psychologist looks at how he uses his smartphone when spending time with his children. His conclusion? There’s no need to feel guilty.

As a media psychologist, I’m constantly thinking about how I use digital media and the effects this may have on my children. One of the things we have learned from the MIKE study is that parents are a very important role model for their children. Is my use of digital media providing a good example? Some days I’m not so sure.

My smartphone wakes me up at 7:15 a.m. Two WhatsApp messages have arrived; instead of reading them, I make breakfast. Soon the children are awake. They grab a bite to eat, and the older one gets ready for preschool. I glance at my smartphone a couple of times to make sure that he leaves at the right time.

“By the time the children go to bed in the evening, I must have pulled this ‘digital Swiss Army knife’ out of my pocket six or seven more times.”

Then it’s just me and our younger child. We play together. The phone rings; I answer it but keep the conversation as brief as possible. When my son asks me how high Mount Everest is, I pull out my phone to find the answer. Later on, he listens to a fairy tale on my smartphone while I use it to read an online magazine and respond to messages on LinkedIn and WhatsApp.

Around noon I start to make lunch. First I take a look at the recipe – on my smartphone. I need to know what time we can catch the bus in the early afternoon. So once again, of course, I turn to this marvelous device. I book tickets for the zoo that afternoon. We get on the bus. The conductor checks the electronic ticket that is displayed on my phone’s screen. I take the phone out again at the entrance to the zoo.

While wandering through the zoo, we take a few photos – on my smartphone, naturally – and share a laugh about the silly faces we are making. By the time the children go to bed in the evening, I must have pulled this “digital Swiss Army knife” out of my pocket six or seven more times. I can always count on it to do what I need it to.

The children fall asleep. Thinking back on my day, I feel guilty. As a father, I haven’t provided the kind of role model I expect of myself – I worry that I’ve spent too much time on my smartphone. What must my children think when I’m constantly taking it out of my pocket? Is it possible they believe that I care more about an electronic device than about them? I highly doubt it. Ubiquitous smartphones are part of my children’s reality; they have never known a different world.

“My concept of how a father should interact with his children comes from a time before smartphones. Even when I was a child, however, my parents’ attention wasn’t constantly focused on their children – fortunately!”

I’m the only one of us who grew up in a different era with different ideas about what childhood should be like. And that is exactly the point. My concept of how a father should interact with his children comes from a time before smartphones. Even when I was a child, however, my parents’ attention wasn’t constantly focused on their children – fortunately! They would read the newspaper, watch television, check bus schedules, and so on – but they didn’t do all of these things using a single device.

Sometimes I catch myself explaining to my sons what I’m doing on my phone – in an effort to justify the fact that, once again, I’m holding it in my hand. But should I really feel guilty? No ­­– not as long as I follow three basic rules – which should, in fact, apply to any interactions with other people: Don’t use your smartphone when you’re talking with someone, during meals or before you go to bed. That said, a smartphone makes many things easier for our family and helps us cope with our often hectic day-to-day lives.

MIKE is a representative study of the media use of primary school students in Switzerland. The survey includes more than 1,000 children between the ages of 6 and 13 and over 600 parents in Switzerland’s three major language regions. The MIKE study is conducted by the media psychology group at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and funded by the Jacobs Foundation and Jugend und Medien – Nationale Plattform zur Förderung von Medienkompetenzen (Youth and Media – A National Platform for Promoting Media Skills). The 2017 MIKE study, which published its results on March 1, 2018,  is the second round of this Swiss study of children and the media. The first study took place in 2015.

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