Kids at the Starry Skies family festival

When I asked Perinatal Clinical Psychologist and blogger Emma Svanberg whether our digital lives are causing problems for parents and children I was hoping she’d say no. Spoiler alert: she didn’t. While I like to think my family’s time is spent frolicking in nature or crafting together, the reality is that – while some of the above is true – I check my phone way too much. I have to, I tell myself, because I’m juggling a complicated career with various strands. I need to respond to urgent emails, well, urgently. And with the wonders of modern technology I can do all that from home.

On the plus side my digital availability and access has meant I’ve been able to spend much more time with my young family than a working parent of the previous generation. It has given me something to silence my squawking children with when I need to make a pressing call, and it has let me be responsive to work while running them around the playground. But when my youngest started walking he’d follow me in a panic shouting “phone mama” if I left the room without my phone in hand. It turns out I’ve got so used to the necessary and useful digital world that I’ve let a lot of pointless and automatic Instagram / Facebook / weather app / news checking become the norm.

When my youngest started walking he’d follow me in a panic shouting “phone mama” if I left the room without my phone in hand

So back to Svanberg who tells me our digital lives “can have an enormous impact on individuals and family relationships.” Individually she believes that it is far too easy to use screens compulsively. “Partners often ignore each other in favour of reading on their phone/tablet in a way we just wouldn’t with books or a landline.” There are numerous studies about the impact of screen time on adult obesity, eyesight, sleep and sex .

For children, Svanberg “wonders what it must be like for modern day infants to grow up looking at the back of a slim box.” Commenting on how often we check our phones when feeding babies or how often we photograph or video them she adds, “infants don’t know what these boxes are, all they know is our shared delight has been interrupted by an intruder.”

But knowing is one thing and doing something about it another. Svanberg herself, mother to two children under five, says that though she’s got good boundaries with her kid’s screen time, she feels guilty about her own use and knows she needs to be stricter. “I do more or less everything on my phone and I often take it with me to the toilet to catch up on emails.”

For entrepreneur and mother of two Steph Douglas a wifi-less holiday to the Lake District initially caused panic but soon highlighted how unnecessarily dependent she’d become on her digital life. In a post on her Sisterhood Blog, the Don’t Buy Her Flowers founder, confessed that she “can lose twenty minutes multiple times a day going down a rabbit hole of holiday snaps of people I don’t know, and coming out at a clip of a 70s dance off that goes on for six minutes.”

I’ve got so used to the necessary and useful digital world that I’ve let a lot of pointless and automatic Instagram / Facebook / weather app / news checking become the norm

When (somewhat unwillingly) forced to go cold turkey she realised that any down time in her busy life had been filled with staring at her phone. Without it she finished a book, had more sleep and realised her business could run without her constant supervision. Now back home she’s impressively managed to hang on to some of her new habits.

Douglas’s new boundaries include leaving her phone downstairs at night and in another room while she’s working. And it’s had a big impact. “When I wake up, rather than reaching for my phone to check the time and before I know it being online, answering emails or feeling panicky, I can doze and get up to an hours more sleep. I get ready much more quickly as I’ve not got half an eye on notifications popping up, and then I focus on getting the kids up and ready before getting to my phone.”

For her, the chance to do one thing at a time “rather than be in this constant state of juggle that makes me feel very anxious” is much more satisfying. It sounds good to my jangly nerves too. 

Rebecca's children Sofya and Arthur

I want in on a more boundaried digital life but so far I confess to failing miserably. I tried to hide my phone in a tin in the evenings but after taking it out five times in an hour I gave up. The recent news storm has done nothing to help my resolve. I have a feeling that, like Douglas, I need to cut myself off from it completely and start afresh. This summer I’ve deliberately found opportunities to be away from the online world. At Starry Skies family festival, organiser Melissa Kid tells me there’s “little-to-no mobile signal, no wifi and acres of ancient woodland and rolling fields to run around in. Parents and kids make friends, play games, climb trees, build dens and generally throw themselves into being wild and feral.” It sounds glorious and terrifying.

In the meantime I’m trying to be gentle with myself and remember all the good and useful things about the digital world, like the communities it has helped build and strengthen. As Douglas says “the internet has enabled me to launch and grow a business and get to know an overwhelmingly supportive network of women, bloggers and business owners.” For Svanberg Skype and FaceTime “is wonderful way to bring the generations together.” For me, the chance to work and parent without too much sacrifice of ambition or family may have led me in to a digital muddle, but it has also let me be there for key moments in my children’s lives while keeping my work momentum going. So while I struggle with setting my own boundaries in this useful but overwhelming new world, here are some top tips on how to try to digitally detox.

How to Digitally Detox

1. Don’t feel guilty about using technology that makes your life better. Instead sit down with your family and set some digital boundaries that work for you.

2. Ask the children how they feel about your phone/tablet/laptop use. Ask them to help you set the rules for your own out-of-work-hours screen time and explain when you have to break them.

3. Go cold turkey while on holiday. You may need to take extra gin.

4. If that’s not possible take day trips to places with no wifi and try leaving your phone behind if and when you can.

5. Consider deleting social media apps from your phone and instead have dedicated social media time when you are at your computer.

6. Get a watch, a bedside alarm clock and a window (to check the weather).

7. Try a regular family screen free day or morning.

8. Ban screens from bedrooms – including your own.

9. Share your children’s digital watching and playtime with them when you can. Check out the apps designed for families to play together.

10. Experiment with not filling your downtime by checking your phone. Remember it’s ok – some say essential – for children to be bored. The same is quite probably true for us grown ups too.

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