9 ways your phone addiction is affecting your children - experts share the red flags to watch out for and how to reverse the effects

It's known as 'phubbing' and can be detrimental to the relationship with your child

Woman looking at her phone, with child climbing under furniture behind her
(Image credit: Getty Images)

We totally get it - parents are pulled in so many directions, and your phone is often the point of contact. But, there's undeniable research pointing to the potential damage phone 'addiction' could be having on children.

It's the 21st century, and nobody expects parents not to be using their phones. Technology and screen time for kids are here to stay, and we have no judgment for busy mums whose phones are essential to staying afloat. Between juggling demanding jobs and often being sandwiched between siblings, not looking at your phone around your children can feel impossible. On the other hand, it's also difficult to ignore the rise in research pointing to phone use impacting your relationships and how smartphone addiction is really impacting life.

We spoke to Dr Belynder Walia, psychotherapist and author of Fix Me, who tells us, "In today's digital age, phone addiction is a concern that affects both children and parents, sometimes unintentionally. With everything being online, such as work, shopping, and banking, it's understandable that phone use has become an integral part of our lives. However, excessive phone use can have a significant impact on your children's well-being and development when it becomes an addiction. Recognising the signs of parental phone addiction is crucial in addressing the issue." Read on for what you need to know about the impact phone addiction can have on your children and expert advice on what you can do to turn it around.

How your phone addiction might be affecting you

There are many ways phone addiction can affect us. Disrupt sleep, impact your memory, encourage self-absorption, and reduce cognitive skills. The impact of prolonged phone use around those important to us has been dubbed 'phubbing,' the act of ignoring the person you're with in favour of your phone. Parents might be familiar with mum guilt from their kids begging them to put their phones down and pay them attention. This can feel hard when a vital work email needs to be fired off, or the class WhatsApp group reminds you of an important task that needs to be done immediately.

Difficulty disconnecting

We spoke to Child Psychologist, Dr Patricia Britto, who told us what a difficulty disconnecting might look like. She said "A parent may difficulty disconnecting if they are constantly reaching for their phone, and spending the majority of their time on it. They're likely to wake up at night to check for notifications, and check again first thing in the morning."

Dr Britto continued "Those unable to disconnect can also feel distressed when their phone is not in reach. The result of this level of constant connection has sometimes resulted in injury or accident to the person or others, such as a car crash from texting while driving. Parenting, as well as professional and personal life, is less focused on when compared to using your phone, and there is difficulty disconnecting from using a phone."

Impact on relationships

Studies indicate that parents focussed on their phones fail to give their children the positive emotional responses they need to feel safe in the relationship. Not receiving the emotional and behavioural responses they require, has resulted in children seeking the feelings of being loved and respected elsewhere. Often, youngsters will turn to technology to satisfy their needs, and risk developing their own addiction - not only is their relationship with parents suffering, the emotional fallout could stay with them into adulthood.

Dr Britto told us "Excessive phone use is associated with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety as it disrupts in-person human interactions and reduces the effectiveness of communication between two individuals (e.g., parent and child). Two individuals should be fully engaged in reciprocal interaction for communication to be most effective. If one is distracted by a phone, it may make it difficult for the other person to pick up on their verbal and non-verbal cues."

Neglecting responsibilities

Productivity and performance can be constantly affected by the need to check your phone. Work can suffer if you struggle to focus on time sensitive task, and overseeing school and household responsibilities can be put on hold. There are studies showing parents are aware of their problematic behaviours around phone use and want to change them. but have difficulty in achieving a balance.

Many use their phones for their own emotional regulation when they find parenting stressful or boring. In a world where technology has made parenting relentless, and help often difficult to come by, breaking the need to disengage from difficult situations by using their phones could become heightened for some - we understand this.

Impaired wellbeing

Although a lot of focus lays with the psychological and emotional impact of phone use, there are physical implications too. Eye strain can be a result of staring at a screen for too long, leading to anything from itchy eyes and blurred vision, to eye fatigue and headaches.

Some people experience neck problems, either from looking down for too long, or staying for long periods of time in an uncomfortable position while staring at their phone. Some might be surprised to hear that excessive phone use has also been associated with increased illness - taking your phone to the toilet or other unhygienic places means some have been found to have traces of E.coli and MRSA on them.

Emotional impact

Feeling irritable or agitated when the phone is taken away or interrupted, or experiencing mood swings or increased anxiety related to phone use are all signs of adult emotional impact. Dr Britto told us "Excessive phone use can be a form of escapism for parents, as parenting is a challenging life experience and a full-time job; individuals may use their phones as a source of entertainment to have some work/life balance.

However, it is essential to note that the excessive need to use a phone could be a sign that other underlying emotional needs which should be explored and unpicked. Individuals who use their phones excessively may have unmet emotional needs - this won't be the case for everyone, as individual differences exist, but will need to be looked into for some people."

Lack of control

In a nutshell, Dr Britto told us "Lack of control involves an individual believing that checking their phone consistently supersedes all other plans they may have." This can encompass many impulse-control problems, including valuing online relationships more than real ones, addiction to social media, and the pleasure that comes from getting likes or comments on social media posts.

Research shows this works by the 'feel good' chemical, dopamine, being released when a social media interaction has the desired outcome. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in influencing the experience of pleasure. Social media activates the brain’s dopamine reward pathway, creating a the need for constant engagement for a dopamine reward - alterations of the brain can even result in the dopamine threshold being raised, and the need to feed a phone addiction at the expense of everything else.

How your phone addiction might be affecting your children

When a parent uses their mobile phone excessively, it can hurt a child in more ways than one, as Dr. Belynder explains, "A child with a parent who is addicted to their phone may experience emotional, social, and developmental challenges, which can have lasting effects on their well-being and overall development. Parents must be mindful of their phone use and prioritise meaningful interactions with their children to foster a healthy and supportive environment."

She noted the following nine consequences...

1. Lack of attention

Children may feel emotionally neglected when their parents are consistently absorbed in their phones. This might lead to feelings of rejection as children interpret their parent's phone use as a preference over spending time with them. Research shows lack of appropriately responsive relationships potentially threatens a child’s development and wellbeing. It can activate biological stress response systems, which can even disrupt developing brain circuitry.

Dr Britto told us "When adults use their phones in front of their children, in some cases, they may pass on the idea that they need to compete for attention. Children may find competing for their caregiver's attention distressing. Some children may show distress by offering a fight-flight-freeze and fawn response, such as being withdrawn, fighting back, running away, or people-pleasing by pretending it is not a concern."

2. Emotional impact

Children might worry about their worth or struggle with feelings of loneliness, stemming from a lack of attention and interaction from their parents. Although it should be pointed out that some studies have found positive correlations between parental phone use and infant emotions, there are negatives to be considered.

Some studies highlight that disrupted interactions with their caregiver affects a child's mood or behaviour. Less responsive parents and decreased conversation can result in the ‘Still Face Paradigm’ which suggests initiating and responding to child social cues is required for connection. A lack of parent reaction has been associated with emotional issues such as infant distress and confusion.

3. Behavioural issues

The lack of parental attention and supervision due to phone addiction can lead to children developing behavioural problems. They might act out to gain attention or struggle with impulse control, mimicking the compulsive behaviour they see. Children have also been known to resign themselves to not getting the interaction they need, and give up on trying to parental attention - this can lead to depression and loneliness.

Dr Britto told us that behavioural issues are not always directly linked to parents using their phones, but more to what children could miss out on when they have a disengaged parent. She said "Children miss out on things such as being taught how to play a board game, or being helped with their homework if adults are constantly on their phones." They might not have the ability to turn into fully rounded adults, if they haven't been taught the basics by their parents.

4. Low self-esteem

In extreme cases, children could exhibit low self-esteem as a result of parental phone use. Light phone use isn't going to hurt anyone, and much of what we are discussing here is aimed at parents really struggling with excessive phone use. However, combined with potentially poor relationship with their parents and increased likeliness they'll turn to online interactions for comfort, means research points to the development of low self-esteem over time.

Dr Britto told us "Some children are likely to feel unheard and unseen if they are not given consistent attention and support when required, but this could also be because their parents have prioritised other things at a given moment, not just due to the use of phones. Children appear to prefer getting their parents' full attention, which helps them experience feel-good hormones in their brains and, in turn, positively affects their emotional well-being and self-esteem."

5. Attachment issues

Secure attachment forms through consistent and responsive caregiving. When parents are often distracted by their phones, it can lead to attachment issues, affecting the child's future relationships and emotional stability. Studies show that securely attached children need to be comforted quickly by their caregivers when distressed. Their main caregiver then becomes a secure base to explore their environment, safe in the knowledge they will be there to provide reassurance on their return.

Insecurely attached children learn to manage their own distress when they learn they won't get rapid comfort. Those with attachment difficulties are at increased risk of anxiety, fears and phobias. As they're more likely to display both internalising (anxiety, depression) and externalising problems (aggressive behaviour) issues, they could have ongoing mental health problems into adulthood.

6. Delayed language skills

Parental phone addiction can lead to reduced verbal and non-verbal interactions, potentially resulting in cognitive delays or language development issues. While research is still emerging in this area, available findings suggest reduced responsiveness and disrupted gaze caused by phone use, can hinder language development.

However, while this has been identified, researchers suggest smartphones could enhance interactions if used as an object of shared attention. There is a call to work with parents to fully understand the nuances of smartphone use on speech delay, and find a balance between their use and how to positively impact language development for occasional phone users.

7. Slower emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence involves understanding and empathising - through direct interaction. Limited interaction with phone-addicted parents can hinder this aspect of development. One study described emotional intelligence as the "ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion, and regulate emotion in the self and others." This ability has a particular correlation with enhancing self-awareness and regulation, and ability to maintain appropriate interpersonal relationships.

Focussed parental reactions are needed to influence the development of their children’s nervous system, which can be hindered by phone use. These stable emotional interactions help children develop the emotional control skills needed to develop emotional intelligence. Being engaged in fragmentary and unpredictable responses can result in children displaying negative developmental tendencies, such as poor self-expression and self-regulation skills, and increased aggression.

7. Reduced social skills

Children learn social cues and interaction skills through observing and engaging with their parents - but parental phone addiction has the potential to limit these interactions. Although this is another area currently requiring more investigation, Dr Britto told us it's definitely one that could be on the horizon as a downside to over using phones.

She told us "Not enough research shows the correlation between parental phone use and changes in children’s developmental stages. However, a lack of in-person-focused social opportunities and social interaction can result in children not having social skills modelled to them. For example, one can learn how to control one’s impulses by observing others - further important social skills may not develop if not modelled effectively."

9. Mimicking behaviour

A parent's constant engagement with their phone teaches children that such behaviour is acceptable, potentially leading to social disengagement in their own lives later on. Studies show that parents who engaged in overt phone use themselves, have children who copy that behaviour. Parents then encounter conflict when they try and control their child's phone use in later years, and the child recalls their parent always being on their phone.

Any behaviour we want our children to replicate, needs to demonstrated by parents. Those with their own issues with phone use have reported resignation, frustration, and giving up on trying to control older children's consumption of media. This in turn can leave them open to online harassment, and potentially accessing inappropriate or dangerous material.

How to reduce screen dependency

It's important to set clear boundaries around phone use to reduce phone addiction in yourself as a parent. Adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” policy. Remove all devices from view when they are not being used. Dr. Belynder advises, "Establish specific times when phones are off-limits, create phone-free zones in the home, and prioritise uninterrupted family interactions. By doing so, you can rebuild a healthier balance between technology and family interactions."

Be mindful of learning - if you continually use your phone, a child is likely to mirror the action. "Practising mindfulness is crucial," says Dr. Belynder. "Be present and engaged when interacting with your children. Put away your phone and focus solely on the moment and the connection with your child. Engage in activities without the distraction of phones, allowing you to enjoy and appreciate the time spent with those around you entirely."

If you think you might struggle with things to do when you decide to put your phone away, have some options in mind to distract yourself. Dr. Belynder advises, "Finding alternative activities can also help in reducing phone addiction. Encourage yourself to find hobbies, visit a library, exercise, spend time outdoors, or participate in family-oriented activities that promote bonding and connection. By shifting your focus to these activities, you can reduce excessive phone use and create meaningful moments with your children."

What our writer learned

Parents feel judged often enough, without adding to that feeling of not being good enough - we certainly aren't aiming to make anyone feel bad about their phone use here. As research emerges about potential pitfalls of excessive phone use around children, we simply hope to educate and inform parents of these updates and not make anyone feel they're doing anything less than their best.

Set all boundaries in stone. They should be non-negotionable. "It's important to remember that setting boundaries around phone use is crucial," says Dr. Belynder. "Still, it's also essential to acknowledge the role of technology in our lives and find a balance that prioritises your children's well-being while still staying connected. By being mindful of your phone use and actively taking steps to reduce addiction, you can create a healthier balance and strengthen your relationship with your children."

She added, "If you find it challenging to reduce phone use independently, seek support from family, friends, or professionals. Joining support groups or engaging in therapy can provide guidance and accountability as you work towards reducing phone addiction."

Parenting is a lot, and it's no surprise some will experience parental burnout with the sheer mental load it takes to run a family - here's the signs you could be burnt out. We know it's hard to fit that self care in, but experts have said it's essential for mums, and here's how you can achieve it.

Dr Patricia Britto
Dr Patricia Britto

Dr. Patricia Britto is a qualified Educational Psychologist (HCPC Registered) and a mother with practical and research experience. Her qualifications include a Doctorate in Professional Educational, Child and Adolescent Psychology (DEdPsy) from UCL, Institute of Education, an MSc in Mental Health in Learning Disabilities and a BSc in Psychology. Dr Patricia works Independently at the prestigious Harley Street and within Local Authorities Educational Psychology Services to promote children and young people’s (age 0-25) learning and social, emotional and mental well-being. Dr. Patricia offers families, communities, and educational settings support through consultation, individual psychological assessments suitable for children and young people, and systemic work (e.g., training, workshops and organisational psychology support).

Belynder Walia
Dr Belynder Walia

With a focus on innovative methodologies such as DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), Psychotherapy, Neuroplasticity, and Self-Reflective Therapy, Dr. Belynder empowers individuals to overcome issues such as trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, Body Dysmorphic Disorder and more. Her goal is to help individuals rewire their minds and transform negative beliefs into positive ones, enabling them to achieve their dreams and live the life they deserve.

Selina Maycock
Senior Family Writer

Selina is a Senior Family Writer for GoodtoKnow and has more than 16 years years of experience. She specialises in royal family news, including the latest activities of Prince George, Charlotte, Louis, Archie and Lilibet. She also covers the latest government, health and charity advice for families. Selina graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2006 with a degree in Journalism, and gained her NCTJ and NCE qualifications. During her career, she’s also written for Woman, Woman's Own, Woman&Home, and Woman's Weekly as well as Heat magazine, Bang Showbiz - and the Scunthorpe Telegraph. When she's not covering family news, you can find her exploring new countryside walking routes, catching up with friends over good food, or making memories (including award-winning scarecrows!)

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