“Spare time” is a phrase that has little meaning in my life. Every minute seems to have its purpose. I can cook toast while making porridge. I can clean teeth while plaiting hair. I can text my mum while the kids are dragging their feet to the car.
Since I’ve become a mum of two small humans multi-tasking has become as natural as breathing. I don’t think I’m unusual, most women I know are absolute queens of the juggle: they manage everything from care arrangements (holiday care, after school care, day care) to birthday parties and family dinners. And that’s on top of everything they already do at home or work.
If I ever stumble into that mythological moment of “spare time” I’m discombobulated. What does one do with minutes, even an hour, when there’s no clothes to fold, lunches to pack or bathrooms to clean?
I’m not being a martyr. I honestly don’t know what to do. It seems a waste to do nothing. But feeling like I should be doing something productive is only half the picture. The other half is that I have a complete inability to be bored.
The result? My phone becomes my lifeline. It’s in those spare moments that I can answer waiting work emails, text friends to arrange catch ups or check in with future appointments. If I’ve done all I can do for work, I’ll scroll through Facebook, telling myself I need to “catch up” on what’s happening in the world.
According to a Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey in 2016, Australian adults check their phones around 30 times a day, but there has also been research that says we do it up to 150 times a day. I’m fairly certain I fall into the higher category.
And our children are noticing. You may have seen the recent ABC article, where children spoke about how they felt angry when their parents were on the phone.
Dr Kristy Goodwin, a children’s technology and development expert, says parents are freaking out about their kids’ screen time, when they should really be looking at their own.
“When we stop to realise how we have become infatuated with our screens it helps us as parents to understand why our kids become obsessed with technology as well, and why they combust when we ask them to turn it off, and why we have the techno tantrums.”
Unlike our children, however, we didn’t grow up with smartphones. This year is the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone sold. A mere decade of this device in our lives and we have accepted its presence like it has always been a part of it.
Goodwin says there are apps you can download (of course there are) to monitor how much you’re checking your phone. I’m too afraid to try.
My phone is like a siren calling to me, whenever I’m adrift in an ocean (or let’s face it, a pond) of boredom. That could be during an ad break when I’m watching TV, if I’m waiting at a pedestrian crossing, or when I’m pushing my son on the swing.
I’m not alone. In the same year that we were checking our phones 150 times a day, some American adults preferred electric shocks to boredom.
In a study published in Science magazine, a well-regarded US scientific journal, adults were placed in an unadorned room and left with no mental stimulation for between 6 and 15 minutes. Of those surveyed, 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women elected to have an electric shock, rather than be bored.
It was a small study in America, but the statistics resonate with me. I would definitely have been in the 25 per cent of women who thought an electric shock was better than staring at the walls.
That’s not to say there aren’t any critical voices decrying the way we’re all “addicted” to our phones. There are plenty of people prepared to judge a parent on their phone in a park while their child plays.
But Goodwin says that when it comes to parenting, the picture about mobile phones is much more complex and the issue shouldn’t be about judgement and guilt.
“Let’s be honest. Our phones are a pleasurable experience, we watch funny things, we read interesting information so our brain gives us hits of dopamine. We feel good, so we obviously want more and more of it. That’s where that dependency comes from.”
Beyond that, Goodwin says phones cater to our basic human needs and desires, like the need to feel connected, or the desire to feel competent and in control. These are feelings that parents understand well.
Anyone who has ever stayed home with a baby, day in and day out, will know there are moments of extreme loneliness. Connecting with fellow parents online can help alleviate that isolation. Most parents I know still feel like they haven’t got a clue what they’re doing. Phones can make you feel competent. You can post photos about the good times, and not feel so bad about the poonami in the shopping queue, or your milk vomit-coated pyjama top.
In a life where very little is under your control – your phone can give it back to you.
When you look at it in that light, it makes perfect sense that parents like to be on their phones.
Goodwin says the key is to find a healthy balance, one where we don’t completely abstain from our phones, but where we also don’t miss out on what our kids are doing.
Her tips on setting up some healthy digital habits are:
- Find out how much you check your phone, through apps like In the Moment, Break Free or Quality Time. If you lack self-control, some of these apps can even help you with that.
- Allocate yourself social media time, like an hour in the morning or afternoon, and put it in your diary.
- Hide it away somewhere you can’t grab it easily when you’re bored at home.
- Imagine yourself in 10 years time, and imagine how you’d feel about the time you spent on your phone as your kids were growing up (when they’re teenagers and probably just grunt and slam doors).
Smartphones are a new addition to parenting. We would be naïve to assume they don’t have an impact on us as parents, or our children. They are as helpful as they are distracting. The point is accepting that they do have an impact, and working out how we’ll make that impact a positive one.