Step away from the smartphone
Torn between the tot in front of you and the mobile buzzing in your pocket? Here's what happened when mum-of-three Naomi Reilly spent a week unplugged
I was at the park the other day just casually checking my emails when my toddler son Arthur ran into a swing. I dived over to scoop him up, but it was too late: the bruise on his head was already coming up. I was mortified. It was obviously my fault. And as the other mums in the park looked over, I felt nothing but shame for letting my phone get the better of me. Again.
Talk about a reality check. Ok, so this time I may have been glancing over a few work emails (the perils of being a freelancer means you're never really off duty), but it could just as easily have been something trivial luring me in.
That's the problem with smartphones. Often I'll be online for a valid reason – like checking my bank account, or emailing a work contact – then the next moment I'm delving deep into a Facebook acquaintance's 64 holiday photos that they've just uploaded. And on my kids' time.
There's no denying that my phone has become an addiction. And I'm not the only one being sucked in. Parenting website MyFamilyClub carried out a study earlier this year with more than 6,000 parents from across the UK. They found that the average parent with a smartphone uses it 240 times a day for emails, texts and social media. That's a lot of time spent ignoring our kids!
Clearly, this lifestyle can't be healthy. Psychotherapist Nicholas Rose, who runs a therapy practice for families and individuals in Chiswick, west London, says, 'When parents use technology excessively in front
of their children they're modelling a way of being that tells them that communication with people not present is more important than with people who are present.'
I'm also concerned that my constant need to check my emails, and look at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram means that I'm missing out on genuine real-time interactions with my children. Then there's the basic safety precautions when we're out... ahem.
With this in mind, I decided to go cold turkey and set myself a challenge to switch off my smartphone for seven days. I was off work for half term so – apart from the 30 minutes at lunchtimes I allowed myself to check emails, texts and voicemails – my phone would be remaining firmly out of sight. Was I apprehensive? You bet. Who knew what would happen while I was smartphone-less? Would it be life-changing? Would my children Iris, 6, Florence, 4 and Arthur, 20 months, even notice? Would I engage with them more? Would it make no difference? Here's what I found out...
It's 7am and I'm feeling nervous about switching off my phone. What if I miss out on something really important? I'm tempted to just leave it on silent, but deep down I know that the act of turning the thing off and putting it out of sight is the only way to stop myself from caving in.
By 8am I'm really struggling. It feels a bit like I've lost a limb. I keep going to reach for my jeans pocket, then realising the phone's not there. Usually by this point I've checked Facebook, the weather and at least two news sites already, so being completely switched off is alien, to say the least.
On the plus side, as the kids and I sit eating our toast and Cheerios, I'm making an effort to engage with them, and it's nice. Then when we've finished breakfast, instead of having a quick scour of Asos while they watch CBeebies, I read them some books.
Later that morning, as Iris and Florence sit at the table to do some painting, I'm genuinely tuned in to what they're both doing instead of mumbling the odd 'Great!' while my eyes are fixed on Instagram.
By the time lunch arrives, I'm excited about switching on my phone for the pre-arranged half an hour. I even spend the 30 minutes leading up to it desperately clock-watching, before finally making a dash to retrieve the phone from my bedroom drawer. I've been imagining all sorts of important messages waiting for me. Yet when I check my Facebook feed, the most interesting find is a picture of my friend's pomegranate salad. A wave of disappointment washes over me.
My children are always moaning at me for not playing with them. Of course, this isn't true.
I do play with them – just not necessarily with the gusto that I perhaps should. Often, I'll do that half-playing thing. You know, holding a dinosaur in one hand and saying 'Roaaar!', while holding my phone in the other and checking what's new on Twitter.
Today, though, without my phone to distract me, I make an active decision to play properly for a whole hour before getting the dinner ready. The kids are delighted.
Instead of simultaneously texting while kicking a football around with Arthur, I make a point of giving him my undivided attention. And while the girls are playing their favourite game of pretending to be puppies, I join in and put my all into being a Bichon Frise. I'm surprisingly convincing, actually. Does my mind ever drift into thinking about my phone? Of course. But I'm not feeling as tempted to run and get it. For the first time in what feels like ages, my three children are getting the whole of me. And it feels good.
Technology has such a powerful hold over your mind. I'm still resisting the urge to run upstairs and quickly turn the phone on for the smallest of excuses. But then I suppose unlearning a behavioural pattern I've been practising for the past ten years is going to take some time...
Even little things like not being able to check the weather or the news whenever I please is doing my head in. I start to wear a watch – something I haven't done in years – so I can at least know what the time is.
However, this phone-free life isn't all bad, I discover. Having a cuddle and a chat with my children in bed first thing in the morning is lovely. Usually, when they wake me too early, I'm tempted just to hand them my phone so I get precious time to snooze for a bit longer while they play Angry Birds and the like. But spending this time talking freely and openly feels quite special – especially as I know that there will come a time all too soon when my kids may not want to stay chatting in bed with mum in the mornings.
My middle daughter is walking around the house with a toy phone firmly stuck to her ear, pretending to be mummy. She's talking nineteen to the dozen, and when I try to speak to her she carries on gabbling. Is this how she sees me? I hope not. But if it is, what kind of example am I setting her? This uncomfortable visual reminder of what I can be like only reinforces why I've set myself this challenge. And no matter how hard I'm finding it at times, it reminds me why I haven't given in.
Out for lunch later, Iris asks me for my phone to play with in between courses. When I tell her I haven't got it, she isn't impressed. It seems I'm not the only one missing the cyber world. But this isn't her fault. The fact is, I've been using my phone as a cheap babysitter for a while now. I'm always thankful for the distraction when on long car journeys or at restaurants, but surely there's something to be said for not always going for the lazy option. That's what I tell myself, anyway...
I'm slowly beginning to adapt to being smartphone-less. So much so, in fact, that when people ask me about it, I'm finding it hard not to preach to them. As I take a look around the playground, I witness the very same kind of behaviour I was showing just a few days ago. I watch as a little girl plays in the sand while her mother sits on the grass nearby texting, and wonder, is there something we're all missing here? How is
this constant obsession with our phones going to affect our children in the long term?
Ok, so engaging with our kids 24/7 isn't realistic – but surely every child deserves some quality time with their parents without a gadget hogging the attention? I think so.
There have been several times recently that I've missed what my kids are saying because I was gazing at my phone. There was even an occasion where Florence physically snatched my phone out of my hands to get me to pay attention to her. I'm not proud of this. And I'm determined to change.
When I go to check my phone at lunchtime as planned, I have two work emails. Usually I'd have insisted on getting back to them straight away. Yet, in the two hours that have passed since I received these messages, no great catastrophe has kicked off. It just shows me that there are few things so urgent that they can't wait for a couple of hours.
We're at the farm today, and instead of reaching for my phone to capture images of Florence and Arthur getting to bottle-feed the lambs, I'm looking with my eyes. And you know what? It's beautiful. Yes, I know how cheesy this sounds, but it's true. I'm absorbing every moment and I really don't think that with a cameraphone stuck to my face I'd have enjoyed it quite so much. The expression of concentration and wonderment on my children's faces will stay with me for a long time yet.
Sunday morning swimming lessons for the girls is usually a time when I sit on the side and surf the internet. Last weekend, I sat trawling for reclaimed Victorian tiles to go in the bathroom (like that couldn't have
waited until later). So actually watching my daughters swim is a novel experience – for both me and them.
'Did you see me, Mum? Did you see me do the whole length without holding on to the side?' Florence asks me afterwards. Usually I tell a white lie and say yes. But this time I'm able to take her face in my hands, look into her eyes and say, 'Yes, I did!'
Later, we go by car to a friends' barbecue an hour away. In the back, the kids are bickering relentlessly but, although it would be so easy just to hand them a phone and be done with it, this isn't possible. I know I vowed not to take the easy option, but I'm fast changing my mind. To have my phone right now would be a godsend, no doubt about it.
Of course, I understand that we live in a digital world. But what I've discovered through my smartphone-less week is that if you live your life through your phone instead of engaging with your kids, then you're missing out.
It took completely switching the thing off for me to realise that my life is a lot better when I'm not constantly obsessing over my phone. Yes, there have been times when I've been desperate to check it. At first it felt like a compulsive itch I had to scratch, but couldn't. However, as the days have gone by I've been surprised by how quickly I've adjusted. My kids have also undoubtedly benefitted from the experiment. When I'm listening to them, I'm really listening. When I'm playing, I'm really playing. And when I'm not doing either of those things, it's because I'm genuinely getting on with something worthwhile.
Moving forward, I'll continue to put the phone away for set periods of time, especially on non-work days when I'm at home with the kids. Checking my emails every five minutes used to be standard practice for the old me, but I've now found that I prefer checking them just once at lunchtime instead of letting them bleed into the rest of my life. And by giving myself set times to be online, I have a feeling I'm going to enjoy my digital time a lot more – I'll be choosing to opt in to it instead of just drifting in and out.
Don't worry – I won't be breaking up with my phone completely – but I'll be taking a step back and entering into a more casual relationship with it from now on. The question is: will you do the same?
Tips for a digital detox
- Decide how long you're going to disconnect for and vow to stick to it.
- Text anyone important to let them know, and set an automated response on your email.
- Get your family and friends on board – it will be much easier if they can do it with you.
- Switch off your phone.
- Put your smartphone somewhere out of sight; this is important as it will reduce the temptation for you to cheat.
- Get on with your day.
- Remember, almost nothing is so important it can't wait for a few hours!
- Don't return to your phone at all until your arranged time is up.