I’ve come to rely on my mobile phone for absolutely everything, from checking the weather to help plan our day’s itinerary, coordinating the family calendar, organising appointments and play dates, booking days out and activities (and, once upon a time, holidays), internet banking, tracking time, shopping, directions, keeping up to date of worldly events (especially during Covid), learning new things (did you know babies don’t have knee caps?), getting my latest social media fix, entertainment, and somewhere in there, using it for its original purpose – communicating. Heck, I even attend virtual gym classes on there, occasionally. Very, very occasionally.
But… All of these benefits come with a cost, and I can’t help but wonder, what is it like for little people these days to see their big people so attached to an electronic device, so much of the time? This is certainly something I never had to contend (or compete) with growing up. Mobile phones were an uncommon sight until I was a teenager.
How much of my time spent using my mobile phone is actually useful and productive, and how much of my time is spent just mindlessly scrolling down an endless newsfeed? How dependent have I become upon a constant stream of notifications, likes, and information?
I was about to find out.
I set myself some ground rules. I could check my phone briefly first thing in the morning, which is when I usually communicate with my family overseas before they head to bed, then I can check it briefly at lunch and dinner or whenever the kids and I aren’t in the same room as one another (a rare occurrence). I can also use it to answer the phone, or for essential tasks such as paying a bill, making an appointment, or referring to a recipe (and emergencies, obvs). The aim was to keep my use down to a maximum of 30 minutes a day, and not to have my phone close at hand, so that it doesn’t travel everywhere with me like an appendage.
Today was such a busy day, that it turned out to be a very gentle introduction to mobile phone-free parenting. I had an appointment in the morning, and my son had an appointment quite some distance away in the afternoon which meant a 3-hour round trip. So there was barely any time to check my phone even if I’d wanted to. The bit I found trickiest was when my husband was putting our youngest to sleep, I usually have a cuddle on the couch with my eldest while he watches cartoons and has his supper (does anyone still use that word?). Usually, I’m so exhausted by now that I do a lot of mindless scrolling in the small window before it’s time for stories and bed, but this time we chatted about the cartoon and his day as we cuddled. He enjoyed being able to giggle with me about what he was watching, ask his questions, and generally just have a natter. He’s a chatterbox and I love that about him.
Once a fortnight I do a massive clean and sort out of the whole house. Today was the day, and I’m usually so immersed in getting the job done that I don’t really notice being without my phone. The kids are used to this routine of mine, and once we’ve been out in the morning to burn off some energy, they tend to let me just get on. Sometimes they even ask to help, just so they can press the spray bottle.
Lots of appointments to organise and tasks to achieve today (and lots of waiting on hold) so I needed to use my phone a fair bit. Didn’t mind, because it was helping me complete rather than avoid certain tasks. I repaid the debt by making lemon curd with the kids from the lemons in our garden, followed by some lemon and strawberry jam tarts. They really love helping me bake, especially the bit where they get to lick the spoon. I’ve never seen sprinkles on jam tarts before. Yum.
In the mornings I’m usually so tired I tend to scroll while my kids are having their breakfast. Not today. Today I was feeling playful. I threw my husband’s socks in the shower while he was in there (don’t ask why, beats me!). He hurled them over the screen back at me and so ensued a fight to see who could get the other person with a wet sock first. The kids were clamouring to join in, and what followed was a prolonged game of chasey all around the house with those soggy socks. The kids absolutely loved it. There were a lot of real, deep belly laughs all round, a pretty energising morning workout, and everyone had a silly, fun time. My two love a bit of silliness. It was magic, though I did have to draw the line at my 2 year old trying to throw my dressing gown into the shower as well, but it all probably wouldn’t have happened without me first abandoning my phone.
My son was at kinder, and since we’re back in a very strict lockdown here in Melbourne, there was very little for my daughter and I to do other than go for a walk then head home (parks are closed). Over the lunch time slump, I asked if she wanted to abandon Peppa Pig and come play in her room with me and she was delighted. We played castle blocks together (building a castle for her to knock down), puzzles, and read some books before picking up her brother. Given the chance, it seems she’d far rather play and interact with me than watch Peppa, even if Peppa is usually her absolute favourite.
As much as I’ve found this whole experiment refreshing, I do feel like I’m overcoming some sort of habit, and like any habit it takes a strong will to break and it’s hard to resist temptation. Found myself looking for ‘cheat’ opportunities to look at my phone, for instance whilst a passenger in the car. But really, listening to the cute little conversations between brother and sister was quite heart-melting at times (when they weren’t fighting), for instance when my son invited my daughter to come play in America with him (referring to his forthcoming appointment with an American OT, who, because she’s American and located a long way away from us, he assumes we’re visiting in America rather than just a fair few kilometres down the road). Or when they asked one another where ‘jail’ is and decided it must be at the local playcentre (don’t ask me where this association came from). It was sweet to be present in these little moments and interactions, where their understanding of the world is still so innocent and naive, and a lot of the time quite hilarious, because I know it won’t stay this way for long. Admittedly, it wouldn’t have been quite so endearing if they were fighting.
The last day. Some ‘bad’ habits have occasionally crept back in, but on the whole my phone use has been more intentional and purposeful than it was before, and I haven’t allowed it to distract me too much from trying to be a more present parent to my kids, or from getting my jobs done. One thing I’ve really been focusing on is giving the kids my full attention when we’re talking to one another. It feels so connecting and every time I look at them I can’t help but think how beautifully made they are. I also managed to get outside and paint a big chunk of our fence, one of the many jobs on our to do list since we moved into our new home. Less phone use meant more opportunities to interact, play and connect, even if today it was only chasing one another around the kitchen island and spending a few minutes at the art table making hand prints together to decorate, because it’s easy to see how much they value those opportunities even if they don’t take up a lot of time.
My week of phone-free parenting wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be. I’m not sure if my kids really noticed the difference as much as I thought they would, because I most often use my phone when they’re absorbed doing something else, but I noticed that my own phone use became more intentional and productive, and that I was giving my children my full attention more frequently rather than giving them a distracted nod and an ‘mmhmm’ while my eyes were on my screen. I felt more in tune with my surroundings, and more in tune with the rhythm of my kids’ day and their experience. There was more time for real-time, real-life connection with my beautiful little companions, and more spontaneity, playfulness and activities like baking. I got more jobs done with less distraction and less opportunity to procrastinate.
There was another benefit too – I recently watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, which exposes how ‘big’ money is made by keeping us on our mobile phones for as long as possible. In fact, many Apps are designed to encourage and reward only very frequent use. It felt good to put up some resistance to that and remind myself that I’m in control of my phone use, it does not control me. Phone use is supposed to encourage communication, but if you look around you, you’ll likely find that it often does the opposite to real life opportunities to connect with others.
Will I be giving up my mobile phone moving forward? Absolutely not, like most people I rely on it and find it useful for far too many things. They’re a reality of modern life now and I really appreciate the convenience it affords me. And let’s face it, parenting can get pretty intense, exhausting and overwhelming at times, so there are definitely plenty of occasions where I don’t need to feel guilty about using my phone to snatch a bit of me-time in a hectic, nap-free, 12-hour day. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now, but pretty soon we’ll be packing the kids into the car to go off on our daily lockdown adventure (today it’s a bike walk with a bite to eat and a chance to feed the ducks), and there’ll definitely be no mobile phones allowed (or maybe just a little).
Could you give up your mobile phone for a week? If you do decide to try this at home, I’d love to hear about it!