Screen addiction snuck into my life like a cat through an open door. Having been a corporate go-getter for nearly 20 years before having my baby, I suddenly realized the culture shock of being home alone with a newborn. I turned to my phone to fill a void of busy-ness and all-day connection---not only to other people, but also to technology.
During the many hours I spent nursing, rocking, and holding my tiny sleeping baby, I stayed connected to others through social media. I was thankful to be home with my child, but the change was jarring nonetheless. Aside from my husband and child, the little people on my screen were often the only people I'd see for days---weeks---on end.
To be fair, I put the phone down every time my child was awake. However, as newborn kids do, she slept a lot. I connected with adults in the only way I feasibly could while she existed in eating/snuggling/new-diaper-requiring perpetuity.
A year came and went, and suddenly we found ourselves moving across the country for my husband's all-consuming new job. There, I knew even fewer people than I had in our prior city, much less people with kids. My newly emerging toddler was wonderful company, but let's face it, she couldn't talk much yet. My smartphone often kept me company when she was sleeping or otherwise occupied.
She was thriving. I, however, was not.
I'd go online only ever so briefly, but I started checking in on social media more and more. I wouldn't watch videos, participate in gaming, or do anything else that was plainly time consuming, but I'd look at social media. I'd go online briefly early in the morning while my husband played with our daughter. I'd check it before making breakfast. Then after breakfast.
Soon, I realized that I'd gone back to corporate go-getter mode. But what exactly was I "getting" from screens this time? No emails from VPs were pouring in. I had no deadlines.
The older my toddler got, the more time she spent awake. However, my screen time didn't always decrease accordingly. I played with her diligently, but sometimes, with loneliness for other adults as my motive, I started to drift away from her mentally. I wasn't "all there" with her.
This really wasn’t okay with me. I hold myself to a higher standard than that.
Still, being a mom is tiring. I'd had more practice with adulthood. While she was safe and cared for, I'd cook...with a screen in hand. While she played, I'd sometimes choose to look at the screen instead of seeing how high she could stack her blocks. In my relative loneliness, my focus shifted to where the other adults were. Online.
At some point, I heard about technology addiction. I researched whether phones were bad for the brain. The science talked a lot about kids. As such, I made a very conscious parenting decision to have virtually no screen time for my toddler (well below what the WHO recommends). As for adults, though, only a study or two caught my attention. One thing I learned was this:
"...While many of the behaviours that are described as screen addition look a lot like other behavioural addictions, there are currently no clinical diagnostic criteria for a disorder called ‘screen addiction’...That said, we may reach a point where problematic screen use does become a recognised behavioural addiction...
The term...has likely come about due to the addiction-like behaviours we see in both adults and kids with respect to their screens. There are three main behaviors that help identify addiction, 1) cravings, 2) tolerance, and 3) withdrawal..." (source)
I was surely "craving" the screen. When I'd try not to look at it for awhile, I started to feel anxiety. That sounded a lot like technology withdrawal to me.
To be clear, recovery didn't happen overnight. I didn't follow any screen addiction program or anything like that. My hours online were far lower than what others would consider addictive behavior, but it felt wrong in my heart. I knew that the old parenting adage was proving true: the days are long but the years are short. I didn't want to miss any more time with my kid, even if we were "just" stacking blocks together. That time mattered. And I wasn't going to get it back.
So, I simply decided to fix it. It was hard. But I killed my screen addiction.
Aware that my screen time ebbed and flowed, I wondered why some days I turned to technology, and other days I opted to spend all my time with real people. It's not like I loved the online community; I love my family. I realized, however, that raising kids is sometimes hard (duh). When my brain just wanted to check out for awhile, I'd visit my screen. I'd read a parenting article (as if that justified it). Particularly when I was tired, I'd want to "veg." What's more mindless than screens?
Knowing my triggers was really helpful so that I could say, "I'm tired today. It's going to be more tempting to be online than when I'm well rested. Today, I choose my child." Self-awareness helped me become more intentional about it.
Was it really that bad? Well, according to the Gottman Institute, stonewalling is being "...unresponsive, making evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive behaviors..." Ouch. Guilty. I was unintentionally doing this; not all the time, but some of the time for sure.
I'd be looking down when the world around me wanted me to look up. Kids don't deserve this. No one does.
I used my phone's built-in technology as well as a couple of other tools that showed me how much time I spent on my phone per day. When I realized how much more productively I could've been spending that time---and by productively, I mean actively loving my family---it was eye opening. And behavior changing.
You know how obnoxious the ding is every time you "like" something on social media? I'd gotten in the habit of turning off my volume because I'd had a baby who was often napping. Once she got bigger, though, I turned the volume back on. As it turns out, it made me rather self-conscious to be holding technology that would "DING!" to everyone within earshot every time I liked a post.
A sure-fire way to stop the DING! is to not be looking at things that make me want to "like" them. Kids look up when the phone makes noises. I didn't want mine looking toward me for that reason.
In my home, phones no longer belong in bedrooms. I moved mine (and its charger) to the kitchen on the other side of the house. It charges overnight. When I wake up, it moves into a kitchen drawer. Out of sight. This simple move makes an incredible difference.
Unless I'm awake before my child, I never look at my phone before I've had a chance to look her in the eye and connect for awhile. Somehow, this sets the stage for how the entire day plays out.
Like many moms, I sometimes visited the "mom cave" (why are we relegated to the bathroom?) and lingered a bit too long. Sure, it's a safe place to go and mentally disconnect for a moment while our kids are safely within earshot, but because of that, it's tempting to stay longer than we need to.
To combat the temptation, I'd refrain from letting my phone tag along. Sometimes, I'd pick up a book if I needed a brief mental escape. However, as much as I love books, they didn't cause the FOMO (fear of missing out) that phones do. I could read a single page and put it back down easily. Then I'd go back to my day.
This change alone made me be more physically and emotionally available to my child. When I could interrupt my screen addiction with a simple change of habit, it worked wonders.
Knowing I didn't want to spend any more time on my smartphone than absolutely necessary, I invested in a watch. Not a fancy one; just one good enough to tell me if I had calls or messages coming in (although nicer ones have their perks).
It's amazing how compelling it is to NOT instantly respond to a text message when it comes in over a watch. After all, the phone's hidden quite inconveniently; screen addiction isn't a problem if I can't reach it. Few messages really require immediate responses.
As a side bonus, my new watch also tracked my steps. Being less physically stagnant made it much easier to achieve my daily exercise goals!
I work online; buy groceries online. However, rather than splitting up my online work throughout the day, I gave myself a set amount of time each day to do it without distraction. Much to my surprise, when I allowed myself focused and productive screen time, I had much less desire to be on phones or computers throughout the rest of the day. I stopped multi-tasking and started feeling much more peaceful; much less scattered. My brain no longer had to feel like it was in several different places at once.
For all other times when I'd otherwise have checked my screens, I kept a notebook and pen handy. Those proved incredibly helpful -- and they also showed me how much wasn't "urgent" to look up.
Further, I scheduled dedicated screen-free parenting time. This offered far more benefits than I even realized it would.
When she was still fairly pre-verbal, I used my watch to mindfully dedicate time to my child. I'd tell myself, "I can play for 10 minutes without interruption." Watching the clock and staying engaged with her, I made sure to meet my goal. Once those 10 minutes were up, I'd do it again. I parented 10 minutes at a time. Pretty soon, 10-minute increments of dedicated time would naturally stack up into long play sessions. I was fully engaged. If I felt tempted to check ahead of time, I'd pause, pray, and start my mental timer over. It worked every single time.
As she got older and we could talk about it, she'd tell me, "Mama, play." That was a positive trigger for me to be conscious of where I was physically and mentally. With some trepidation, I'd ask her, "Was I on my phone too much?" "Yeah." "I apologize, baby. I'm here now. The phone is gone." She didn't have to be "big" for me to own and acknowledge when I'd messed up. We practice modeling forgiveness in our house.
I confessed to my husband that it was really hard to put down my smartphone. At first, he didn't get it. I persisted, though, and he started to see the angst that it was causing me. I asked him to pretend my addiction was of a different nature. If I had a drinking problem, for example, it would've been improper for him to sit down next to me with a glass of wine. I was working so hard to get the phone out of my head, that I didn't want him to remind me of my struggle by holding his phone in front of me.
It was hard for him to embrace this way of thinking, but he saw I was serious about it. Plus, we'd been losing time together because of his work schedule. This was one way to get some of our limited time together back.
Screen addiction is rough on kids. All kids deserve better. It's one of the many reasons I became an advocate for children; for positive parenting and connection. I became happier; more joyful. Although it should've been obvious to me, Facebook and other digital "tools" aren't fulfilling; I need to spend time with real people. Prioritizing family and making friends in my new city healed areas of my life that I hadn't even realized were broken. Now, I see the fruits of my efforts in a wholly connected and positive relationship with my child. This is what parenting should be.
I can tell you that I'd love to have every minute back that I'd wasted---and trade it for more time with the child who's now bigger than she was then. Having recovered from screen addiction, I get it. Overcoming it is hard. But it's doable. And it's 100%, completely, and entirely worth the effort.
Sarah R. Moore is an internationally published writer and the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. She’s currently worldschooling her family. Her glass is half full.