From the Desk of Susan London, Middle School and High School Psychologist: Being More Present

Susan London, Middle and High School Psychologist

As we approach the end of the school year, it feels natural that we reflect back on the year we’ve had and also look ahead to what’s coming up next. I’m suggesting that for the moment, we do neither of these things and that instead, we stay present.

Celebrated author and professor,  Rachel Naomi Remen, once said, “Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”  Sadly, these days, it seems like this recommendation can feel like a tall order. How often do we find ourselves at home or even in a restaurant with our children but we’re not really present with our family because we are distracted by Facebook posts, Instagram pics or the latest breaking news?  I find myself laughing right now because as I am writing this article, I have already been distracted by the dings of my phone with text and “Whatsapp” alert notifications. Our phones have become a true source of distraction to us. We check them, on average, anywhere from 80 to 150 times a day. A typical person checks his or her phone approximately every 15 minutes or less and half of the time time he or she checks the phone, there is no alert or notification.   And we know that our tweens and teens are just as plugged into their phones and devices as we are. Our students feel stressed ( I think we do as well) when they are not allowed access to their phones or when their batteries are about to die.

I recently had dinner with a friend and was shocked and somewhat insulted by her propensity to check her phone throughout the meal; checking emails and Facebook posts while we sat at the dinner table.  My friend is not a rude person. In fact, she is one of the most considerate people I know. So why are we behaving so badly with our phones, ignoring our family and friends when the face to face time we get with our nearest and dearest is so  precious and elusive? Beyond the ubiquity of devices and our reliance on them to complete our tasks of daily living, we have actually become addicted to our devices. The scientific research really does seem to support mobile phone addictions. We know that the dopamine triggers in our brain compel us to respond when we hear message alerts on our phones and that we have an evolutionary desire hardwired in us to be social.  (I’ve included a link at the end in case you’re interested in reading more about device addiction). Still, I believe there is a much greater concern that stems from our own cell phone overuse; if we have a difficult time putting down our phones, thereby denying our children of our full attention, then our children are certainly going to model our behavior as well as develop their own feelings of and physical dependence on their phones, perhaps to an even greater degree.

Diane Sawyer of ABC news recently ran a story (see link below) examining what happens when parents are on their phones when their children are present.  In this report, you quickly see how young children become desperate to gain back their parents attention and how easily it could be for a child to wander off while parents are distracted by their phones.  Experts point out that our children have been conditioned to learn that when they see our heads go down (to look at our phones) that we are not really talking to them, we are just pretending to be with them.  Just this week, while I was meeting with a middle school student, she shared, “Most of the time, when I come home from school, my family is on screens. I want them to get off and I just want them to do stuff with me... So much of the time my mom is on her phone but why can’t she wait until she’s not with us?”  This middle school student’s sentiments are spot on and sadly becoming more commonplace. Moreover, the message is really clear; our children do not like it when we are on our phones just as much as we do not like it when they are on theirs. Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who worked on the screen time study, so eloquently and poignantly notes, “Face to face time with our children is not icing on the cake.  It is the cake.” In the coming days, the next time we are with our children and are tempted to quickly check our email or send a quick text, take the moment to connect, simply be present and enjoy the cake.

Here are some suggestions for what we can do as parents to help promote being more present at home.

  • Make eye contact with your children when you are speaking to them so that they know they have your full attention. Remember, whether we like it or not, we are always modeling for our children how to behave.

  • When your child has friends come over to your home, have them check their phones at the door.  Some parents ask people to take off their shoes; you can ask your guests to leave their phones with you.  Make a special box or space where they know their phones will be in case they’d like to make a call. They might grumble at first (and so will your kids) but in time they will come to appreciate that your home is a space where they can be themselves and not have to worry about the pressures of keeping up on social media.

  • Leave your own phones at the door.  Create a period in the evening where everyone in the home puts away their phones and allows each other to be present with one another. Or, create cell-phone free rooms and zones in the home so you know when you are gathered in that space,  everyone will have each other’s attention.

  • Set real limits and boundaries for your children’s devices and then make sure you follow-through.  Our children need us to set firm and clear boundaries for them in all aspects of their lives so that they feel cared for and safe.  We need to maintain the same firm limits and boundaries that we do for brushing teeth and curfews that we do for screen time.

Below are some summer recommendations: some short, some long, some videos, some books and some articles.  I encourage you to look through these and see what appeals to you.

Articles:

Phone Addiction is Real - and so are its mental health risks

How Tech is Changing Childhood and What We’re Doing About It

Parents Trying to Limit Kids’ Screen Time Should Start with their Own

The Five Main Tenets of Mindful Parenting

Videos:

Ted Talk: Why our screens make us less happy

ABC’s Diane Sawyer’s Investigation: Screen Time Experiment

Here’s an insightful video from  the Australian Public Broadcast Service on Kids Thoughts on their Parents Mobile Phone Use

Books

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle

Wherever you Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talking Back to Facebook by James Steyer

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle

Susan London, Psy.D., NCSP
Middle and High School Psychologist